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House of Lords

Tuesday, 13th January 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Lord Neill of Bladen

Sir Francis Patrick Neill, Knight, QC, having been created Baron Neill of Bladen, of Briantspuddle in the County of Dorset, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Wilberforce and the Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.

Computer Games: Classification

2.47 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they propose to modify the system of classification under which the computer game Grand Theft Auto, which allegedly involves thefts of cars and driving at excessive speeds to evade police cars, has been granted an 18 certificate.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, there are currently no plans to change the system of classification for computer games, which, if they show gross violence, human sexual activity or criminal activity likely to encourage similar acts in real life, must be submitted to the British Board of Film Classification and are then subject to the same level of classification as videos. The computer game Grand Theft Auto has been granted an 18 certificate by the BBFC and it is therefore considered suitable for supply only to adults. Its supply to anyone under the age of 18 is an illegal act subject to criminal penalties. The maximum penalty for supplying a computer game in breach of its classification is six months' imprisonment, a £5,000 fine, or both.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. In reply to a previous Question he indicated that the Government are greatly concerned and have the situation under review. As they aim to be tough on crime and on the causes of crime, should criminal offences of this kind be allowed to be presented as games or normal pastimes? Are the Government now ready for computer games on burglary and mugging, bearing in mind that it is mostly young people who play these games and not the adults who bought them?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the Home Secretary has recently appointed Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith to be president of the BBFC and to be the designated authority for the classification of videos under the Video Recordings Act. It may well be young

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people who watch these games, but I repeat that it is an 18 classification and its supply to anyone under the age of 18 is a criminal offence. If there is any evidence of such supply, it should be reported to the appropriate authorities for them to take criminal proceedings.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that demonstration copies of Grand Theft Auto are being distributed with magazines on sale to the public but that my 12 year-old son, who has played the demonstration copy, assures me that he is not motivated to go out and steal cars?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am very pleased to hear that excellent news. But it still remains the fact that the supply of such a video for reward is a criminal offence. It may be that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, would therefore wish to have a private word with his son.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, does the Minister agree that such games are played by young people in their homes and that it is difficult to know what goes on in the home? Does he also agree that as the Government have made tackling crime one of their three priorities during their presidency of the European Union, they should take any measures that would reduce car crime in this country? We have the worst record for that in western Europe.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord is right. Such video games are commonly played in the home. Self-evidently, I would suggest, parents have a responsibility to supervise their own children. One has to strike a suitable balance between banning everything that can conceivably be a pleasure to any section of the population and protecting the vulnerable. We think that at the moment the law is about right.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, at what stage in the production process does such a game have to go for certification? Do all such games have to go for certification?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, a game has to go for certification when it is at its final stage of production. It is then a question of whether the video game is exempt under the Video Recordings Act. If it is within one of the categories that I mentioned earlier, it loses its exemption and therefore needs to be classified.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether this video game or any similar game is available in any of Her Majesty's prisons?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not know whether any such games are in any of Her Majesty's prisons; but I do know that the Director General of the Prison Service, Mr. Richard Tilt, is keenly concerned that no video or video game should be shown to any inmate in any part of Her Majesty's prison estate if it has an inappropriate classification for the age of that inmate.

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Religious Cults: Advice in Schools

2.53 p.m.

Baroness Sharples asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will encourage schools to make use of advisers to raise awareness among secondary pupils of the techniques used to involve and retain young people in religious cults.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, a number of schools already invite people with relevant experience to talk to pupils about religious cults. It is for schools and local education authorities to decide whether and, if so, how this should be done.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. But is he aware that many families are suffering extreme distress because youngsters in such cults are often ordered to disconnect themselves from their relatives outside and, even if they leave the cult, they may be followed and intimidated? What can be done about that? Will the recent Protection from Harassment Act help?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, this is a worrying problem and one sympathises with any family that is broken up by the activities to which the noble Baroness refers. It seems to the Government that if a child is involved--that is, someone under the age of 18--sufficient protections are available at present. If the person involved is over the age of 18, there is the possibility of civil injunction or, as the noble Baroness rightly observed, using the protection against harassment legislation. If criminal acts are evidenced, I would urge anyone with knowledge of them to bring them to the attention of the appropriate authorities.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the Moonies, as they are known, are on the increase, whether their numbers are static or whether they are, happily, declining?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I simply do not know. They seem to have mass weddings, so perhaps they are on the increase.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a growing body of evidence that some of the recruiting methods of such cults are causing great disquiet not only to those who look on from afar but also to the families and the young people involved? Although persons aged over 18 may be involved, is it not a good insurance policy to warn young people before they reach the age of 18 that such techniques exist? When I was a Home Office Minister, I found great reluctance in the Home Office to take this matter seriously.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am sorry to hear that the noble Baroness experienced that in the Home Office. When she was a Minister, the noble Baroness answered a Question--I happen to have a copy

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with me--about related problems and rightly commented on the difficulty of definition, in that one man's religion is another man's cult. There are undoubtedly dangers for young, impressionable minds and it seems to the Government that it is appropriate in the relevant part of the syllabus, such as religious education, religious instruction and discussions on different religions and cults, to warn young people of the dangers. Again, there is a difficult balance to be drawn between the teaching of mainstream religion and the activities of proselytizing cults. Local education authorities, head teachers and those who provide religious instruction should be alert to that. By and large, I am in agreement with the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness.

Lord Milverton: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the danger of some of these so-called cults and religions is that those who are taken in by them lose their minds, in that they lose the capacity to reason and to think? That is a danger which all mainstream religious bodies and schools should point out. No person, young or old, should be forced to lose their mind or their capacity to reason and to think intelligently about matters of religion.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord. Apart from the responsibility of those who teach young people in schools, mainstream religion equally has duties which the noble Lord doubtless discharged in his pulpit in past years.

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