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Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab):
It is very nice to hear about the contribution that the industry makes to the British economy. Does the Minister intend, in his speech, to touch on the Byron review and the Government's commitment to prevent violent video games from falling
into the hands of young people? Are the Government still committed to the conclusions of Byron? Will the recommendations be implemented in full? When will the Digital Economy Bill come before the House? It deals with all the other issues that the Minister cannot deal with in the context of the present Bill.
Mr. Simon: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is a tireless advocate of his views on the subject. Yes, the Government are committed to Byron and to child safety. The work of the Internet Watch Foundation and the Department for Children, Schools and Families-led group that has been set up in an unprecedented way across Government to look at all child safety issues online is very important, groundbreaking and central to what the Government are doing. As my right hon. Friend knows, those are matters not for today, but for the Digital Economy Bill, which is now in another place.
Keith Vaz: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way to me a second time. He talked about the boxed games. One of the concerns is that when people buy video games, there is not sufficient notice on those games that they have adult content, which is central to what the Video Recordings Bill hopes to do-to ensure proper enforcement. Is there anything in the proposal or in any measure that the Government propose to introduce in the near future that will ensure that when retailers sell such games, it is clear that they have adult content-that is, by increasing the very small notification on the box that it is an adult game?
Mr. Simon: As my right hon. Friend knows, child safety, boxed games, and good information that is readily understandable by the public when adult content is included in games or DVDs are central to our approach and to the Byron recommendation that content should be clearly labelled and that content unsuitable for children should not be made available for children.
However, that is not a matter for today. None of the provisions that we are discussing today in this short two-clause Bill will affect that in any way. The size of the rating symbols on the boxes is a subject which I know my right hon. Friend and I will discuss at length in the Committee stage of the Digital Economy Bill. I look forward to that, but it is not something that I should be diverted into discussing today.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): The Minister will be aware, as many of us are, that because of the length of time that it now looks likely the Digital Economy Bill will take in another place, there is a real possibility that time will run out to complete its passage through both Houses before the forthcoming general election. Given the importance of the specific issue raised by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, will the Minister give an assurance to the House that if time ran out, measures would be sought to find agreement so that at least that aspect, on which there is all-party agreement, could still get on to the statute book?
We have every intention of getting the Digital Economy Bill in its entirety on to the statute book although, as the hon. Gentleman knows, in order
to do that, we will be partly reliant on the good will of members of his party and of the official Opposition- [Interruption.]
Mr. Simon: I think I have made the point. We intend to get the legislation through before the election. If the hon. Member for Bath and his hon. Friends, and right hon. and hon. Members on the Conservative Benches, will help us with that, that would be the best approach for all concerned.
The early 1980s saw the introduction, largely from America, of what became known as video nasties: videos that depicted acts of gross violence and violent sexual acts-acts so extreme that they caused concern about the potential effects of watching them on young people and vulnerable adults. In response, Parliament passed in 1984 the Video Recordings Act. That Act introduced a system for classifying video films and some video games according to their content, and a series of offences for supplying classified videos and video games to people under the age restriction. The 1984 Act also stopped the distribution of video nasties by ensuring that such films did not receive a classification and making it an offence to supply unclassified material.
Some 25 years on, it is clear that the provisions of the 1984 Act have worked to remove the worst material from circulation. For example, the British Board of Film Classification, the body appointed under the 1984 Act to classify videos and DVDs, recently refused to classify the highly controversial Japanese film, "Grotesque". The BBFC explained that
"the film has running themes of sexual assault, humiliation and extreme torture...and...presents the audience with...an unrelenting and escalating scenario of...sadism...(including sexual sadism) for its own sake."
It is also clear that the system of classification that the 1984 Act introduced is well understood and well regarded by the public. Independent research conducted on behalf of the BBFC shows that 71 per cent. of adults make use of the classification ratings of films to guide their purchasing decisions at least some of the time, and that 46 per cent. do so before purchasing video games. In addition, out of a total of 3,900 film viewing occasions, those surveyed agreed 99 per cent. of the time with the BBFC's classifications. It is a good organisation, implementing a good piece of legislation that works, and it was with considerable regret, therefore, that we discovered in August 2009, during our preparations for the Digital Economy Bill, which, as hon. Members will know, is in another place for consideration, that the 1984 Act was no longer enforceable under UK law. The situation arose because of a procedural failure in 1984 to notify the European Commission of the Act's provisions in draft under the technical standards directive. I keep stressing "in draft" because we have to repeal the 1984 Act and revive it so that it can be notified in draft; we cannot notify an existing Act.
Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): In case anyone wishes to make a party political point about the issue, it may be worth noting that the legislation was not notified in draft because it was a private Member's Bill, not a Government Bill. Will the Minister elaborate on how the error was discovered in 2009 and, to return to the point, on when the Cabinet Office intends to conclude its audit of all Acts passed since 1984 in terms of their compliance with the technical standards directive?
Mr. Simon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I do not want to make a party political point out of the issue. That would be silly, and I am not going to do so. Nobody involved with the legislation then is a Member now, but I think that another reason why the error might have occurred is that the technical standards directive came in early in 1984 and the Video Recordings Act came out slightly later. They almost overlapped in their inception.
Mr. Vaizey: If I can help the Minister, I should say that the directive came into force on 28 March 1983 and the Bill was introduced on 11 November 1983, meaning that it had to be notified to the European Commission in about August 1983. The directive was therefore very new, and I think that Graham Bright, who introduced the Bill as a private Member, might be forgiven for not being completely à point with European law.
Mr. Don Foster: May I further help the Minister? While he is being extremely generous to the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) on the Conservative Front Bench in relation to what happened in 1983 and 1984, will he also bear in mind that in 1993, many years later, the 1984 Act was considered again in great detail, when it was amended by the then Conservative Government, whose current party leader was at that time an adviser to the then Home Secretary? Surely by 1993 the omission should have been noticed.
Mr. Simon: The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, and he makes it more difficult for me to resist making cheap party political points at the expense of the Opposition. Nevertheless, I shall resist.
Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): Just to be helpful, I might point out that the mover of the amendment to the Act in 1993 was of course Mr. David Alton, so perhaps the conclusion is that we all bear some responsibility.
Mr. Simon: I shall move on to answer the question from the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) about how the omission was discovered last year. The answer is that, as part of our preparation for the Digital Economy Bill, we were involved in a similar process of notifying to the European Commission the Bill's amendments to the 1984 Act-a similar process to that which the hon. Member for Bath suggests one might have thought would have happened in 1993 and 1994. On this most recent occasion during that process, it was noticed that the original Bill had not been notified.
Mr. Vaizey: Will the Minister help me? I think that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, has inadvertently been helpful, which is not a phrase that I often like to use-but we are all in the process of engaging with the Liberal Democrats. If the 1984 Act was amended in 1993, was the amendment notified to the European Commission; and is that aspect of the Act, therefore, still enforceable?
"the Government's legal advice appears to be that previous convictions under the 1984 Act are safe."
Mr. Simon: The convictions are safe in the sense that any attempt to seek any restitution against them would almost certainly fail in court. For instance, any appeal would be an out-of-time appeal, after 21 days, and therefore, although it would be technically possible to mount an out-of-time appeal, it would be very unlikely to succeed. If a criminal mounts an appeal because they have discovered a brief loophole in the law, they are pretty unlikely to receive a sympathetic hearing from a court. All our advice suggests that for a range of reasons like that, it is very unlikely that criminals and disreputable people will be able to exploit the loophole by seeking such restitution.
The purpose of the Video Recordings Bill, therefore, is very simple. It is designed only to repeal and revive the provisions of the Video Recordings Act 1984 in order to make the criminal offences in the Act enforceable again. Until that has been done, no new prosecutions can be made under the Act and prosecutors cannot oppose appeals made in time against convictions. This means that publishers of videos, DVDs and 18-rated and R18-rated video games can distribute their goods free of any classification restrictions. Retailers can sell classified and unclassified adult material to any person, regardless of age, with limited statutory powers to stop or prosecute them. There is also a danger-although we think it slight-that past convictions may be challenged.
To their credit, the reputable makers and distributors of videos and DVDs have continued to submit their films for classification voluntarily, and reputable retailers have continued to abide by the age classification restrictions. Trading standards officers throughout the country, however, are coming across more and more cases of people seeking to exploit the loophole. Officials are uncovering more and more cases of unscrupulous people selling unclassified material or age-restricted material either by post or in outlets that are not licensed sex shops.
For example, law enforcement officials in Milton Keynes have had to return 550 seized unrated DVDs to a seller who is now free to supply them until the Act becomes enforceable again. To be clear, unrated means beyond the R18-potentially very unpleasant material. In Bournemouth, trading standards officers were unable
to prevent a newsagent selling R18 and unrated hard-core sex videos, while in Conwy, law enforcement officers were unable to deal with seven cases of supplying 18-rated videos to children. In Edinburgh, five outlets supplying adult material could not be pursued by trading standards officers. These examples are just a few of the many being discovered by trading standards officers and law enforcement officers in every part of the country.
The longer this legal loophole is allowed to exist, the greater risk of harm being caused to the public by the unrestricted circulation of this kind of material and the greater the potential for the most extreme material to be supplied to children. It is therefore vital in helping to restore the public's faith in Parliament and the video classification system that we act quickly to restore the important public protections contained in the 1984 Act.
The Bill was notified to the European Commission on 10 September 2009 and the three-month notification period expired on 11 December 2009. The fact that we introduced the Bill on 15 December-the earliest possible date after the expiry of the notification period-and are using the fast-track procedure is a measure of how important the Government view the need for the VRA to be made enforceable again.
I know of the concern in this House and in the other place about the use of the fast-track process for legislation and the dangers involved in it, but the Video Recordings Bill provides a classic example of why fast-track legislation still has a role to play. There is a real problem that needs to be dealt with quickly in order to restore important public protections. The Bill does not introduce any new provisions beyond those with which we are all familiar and that have been successfully enforced for 25 years.
The Bill could hardly be simpler, consisting of only two clauses and a schedule. Clause 1(1) repeals the provisions of the Video Recordings Act 1984 and then immediately revives them. Clause 2 refers simply to the short title of the Bill, its commencement and extent. The schedule contains transitional provisions that are designed to ensure that the repeal and revival of the VRA provisions do not change their effect or the effect of other documents that refer to them-in other words, it ensures that all administrative decisions taken previously under the Act still remain valid in law. This is needed to ensure both that all films do not need to be submitted for classification again and a seamless transition once the 1984 Act is revived.
In order to close the period during which offences cannot be prosecuted as soon as possible, the Bill is intended to come into force immediately on Royal Assent. Thus, in summary, the Bill does not introduce any new provisions or offences into the 1984 Act; it simply restores a system of classification that has been in operation for the last 25 years, which has worked to stop the circulation of the worst kind of video material. It is a system that is well understood and liked by a clear majority of the public and the industry. The Bill is essential to ensure proper protection of the public from the inappropriate supply of violent and sexual video material by making the offences under the 1984 Act enforceable again.
Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I am grateful for this chance to support the Government in seeking to pass the Video Recordings Bill. As the Minister noted in his opening remarks, we are here for some very peculiar reasons. In theory, we are debating a Bill that was enacted as long ago as 1984. The then Video Recordings Bill was introduced by Graham Bright, the then Member for Luton, South, who rose to become an extremely successful Parliamentary Private Secretary to an extremely successful Prime Minister, John Major. He introduced the Bill on 11 November 1983.
As is well known, the Bill was intended to address the problem of what were then known as "video nasties". Because videos were unclassified, it was perfectly legal to sell any kind of video without any restriction whatever. As the Minister noted, in the mid-'80s, video recorders-and therefore videos-were becoming all-pervasive, so there was a need to act because videos showing all kinds of unmentionable acts were freely available.
The approach adopted by Mr. Bright in dealing with this problem was ingenious. He introduced a system of classification, and what became illegal was not the selling of an obscene video but the selling of an unclassified video, or a classified video to an inappropriate audience. The test of whether somebody was guilty under the Act was extremely clear-cut. Before the Act was passed, the problem had been that the only available sanction to stop a video nasty was the Obscene Publications Act 1959. Almost by definition, that was a subjective and difficult test to pass. In fact, there were cases of juries clearing people who were accused of selling an obscene video because the jury clearly took the view that it was not obscene. Under the Video Recordings Act 1984 it was made clear that one could not sell an unclassified video. I shall go on to explain why the Act has been so successful-largely because the British Board of Film Classification, to which I pay tribute, has been extremely successful in implementing its provisions.
If any hon. Member has the time over the weekend-or perhaps they will have had time over the Christmas break-it is worth revisiting the debates on the Video Recordings Bill in 1983 and 1984. I am extremely grateful to Mark Taylor from the Library, who pulled out the Committee stages for me to have a look at. The Minister and I were both doing our O-levels at the time, so we may not have been that focused on the debates then taking place.
As the Minister said in his opening remarks, there is a salutary lesson here about how quickly technology changes and moves on. It almost quaint to read those debates, with people referring to the video recording industry as a "new and dynamic" industry; I suspect that most video recorders are now discarded or hidden away in attics. The Minister says that it will be a considerable time before film downloads overtake box sets, but I suspect that in a few years' time, DVD machines will be going the same way and we will be downloading films directly on to our televisions. I will come back to that problem in a few minutes.
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