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Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.
Lord Campbell of Croy rose to move, That this House take note of the proposal to appoint Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith as a designated authority under Section 4(4) of the Video Recordings Act 1984, in accordance with the proposal laid before the House on 18th December 1997.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall explain the terms of the Motion. Under the 1984 Act the letter of appointment must lie on the Table of this House for 40 days. That period expires in a few days' time. It provides a rare opportunity for the House to consider how present arrangements in this field have been working. I should make it clear at the outset that I have no objection to the appointment of Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith and I wish him well. There is no time limit on this debate. We have been fortunate in being allotted the dinner break rather than the middle of the night. I hope that other speakers will tailor the length of their speeches accordingly so that we do not appear to misuse the time made available.
I shall concentrate on one matter, the computer game, Grand Theft Auto, as it is setting an alarming precedent. I first raised this in May last year in an oral Question when there had been reports that the game might be imported. In reply the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, pointed out that because of its nature it would have to be submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, known in earlier days as the British Board of Film Censors. Towards the end of the year I heard that an 18 certificate had been awarded and I tabled further Questions. In sympathetic and courteous replies the noble Lord, Lord Williams, seemed to share my concern, drawing attention to the maximum penalties for supplying this game to someone under the age of 18--six months in prison or a £5,000 fine.
My worry is that the game presents the crime of stealing cars, and the associated offences, as normal pastimes adding an element of glamour too. This is especially unfortunate in Britain at this time. As your Lordships will know, there is too much car crime in this country and we have had the worst record in western Europe in recent years. The millions of car owners and their families are divided into two categories. The first is the large section who have had their cars stolen or broken into; the second consists of the remainder who are apprehensive about when their cars are to be stolen or attacked. The owners of vehicles in Britain may not yet recognise what a damaging disservice this game is inflicting upon them, although I understand that the motoring organisations do.
How is the game played? A detailed description appeared in the January issue of the magazine Playstation; the cover of which advertised the game with the slogan in capitals, "CRIME DOES PAY". To start playing you have to steal at least one vehicle, mugging the driver if necessary. You then embark on criminal missions including blowing up buildings--that is especially unfortunate in view of IRA atrocities of that kind--ferrying drugs, killing pedestrians and driving recklessly to escape from police chases.
The magazine asks prominently, "What would you like to steal today?" Regrettably there has already been a culture among some young people of stealing cars, or from cars, and of joy-riding often ending in death or injury as well as damage to property--and of course without licences or insurance. Several criminal offences are committed within that kind of "prank"; and appearing to glorify those activities is a damaging blow to law and order. The game is staged in three cities. One of them is named "San Andreas", and I hope that the Home Secretary and Mr. Whittam Smith have noted that infelicitous appellation.
The Government are limited in what they can do. The Classification Board does not operate under statutory authority for films; and final decisions as regards films are taken by local licensing authorities. For videos, however--and computer games are included in that category--the 1984 Act has given the board statutory functions. The board is designated by the Home Secretary as the authority to classify them.
The board is entirely independent of the Government and was originally established in co-operation with the film industry. Financially it does not receive subventions from the Government or the film industry, meeting its costs from fees for its classification work.
In the past the board's main concerns have been with sex and violence. That was to be expected in vetting films and videos for viewing. The public would be spectators, perhaps voyeurs. Computer games are different. Members of the public who play them become participants. They operate the controls and in this game are invited to carry out the criminal offences. They are not simply viewers of a video that shows a film.
I have already mentioned some of the crimes included in this game. Some involve violence; some do not. I do not think that there is any sex! However, a car can be stolen, and driven at high speed without licence or insurance, and with no violence other than minor damage to the lock, unless of course the escapade ends in a crash or accident. With such participant games, more emphasis now needs to be placed on criminal actions unconnected with sex or violence.
Classification is not working as intended. Very few adults will have been playing Grand Theft Auto. Very few adults know how to operate the consoles in which the game is staged. It is not feasible to arrest or charge parents for lack of responsibility inside their homes.
The Classification Board, in its latest report, recorded that a survey by the Policy Studies Institute confirmed the easy accessibility of 18 certificate videos to children; and that less rigour was exercised in video shops than
The board took exception to one video game before Grand Theft Auto had appeared on the scene, and I commend its action. It was called Car-mageddon, and to score points a player had to run over pedestrians. The board characterised it as "killing for kicks". However, that game, somewhat amended, was then released without a board certificate of any kind but with a voluntary industry "rating" of 15. The appeals procedure, although independent, seems unsatisfactory because it is one-sided. Only the manufacturers or agents can appeal, not the public or organisations objecting to a product or its classification.
Proving the report's point on availability to teenagers, the Sunday Times on 4th January reported that one of its reporters accompanied a 15 year-old and an 11 year-old visiting several shops where the 15 year-old was sold all the 18 certificate games he asked for, including Grand Theft Auto, and the 11 year-old was refused in only two shops. That was despite the penalties for supplying them to under-18s.
The promoters of Grand Theft Auto have expressed opinions: that the game is simply a bit of fun, a lark and a laugh. I believe that that view is misplaced in the context that I am describing. I do not suggest that every teenager who plays will be adversely affected. However, if only a fraction, perhaps one-tenth, are influenced, this will be undoing the work in which some of us, in Parliament and outside, have been engaged to reduce car crime. In that connection, the British section of the European Secure Vehicle Alliance, chaired by my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux, has made a significant contribution.
In future, when citizens find that their cars have been stolen and driven around, with damage done, or injury, they can attribute some of the blame to this computer game; likewise when their motor insurance premiums are increased.
I recognise that the Government are not empowered to do much because of the statutory situation and the financial independence of the board in what is a self-regulating system. The Government want to be tough not only on crime but also on the causes of crime. For that, anticipation and prevention are necessary. I have noted the recently announced Home Office scheme for young offenders before they leave prison. It is even more important to protect young people in the first place before they drift into becoming offenders. They should certainly not be led into thinking that stealing is an acceptable pastime, together with the other criminal offences.
Of course cars are stolen or broken into by adult criminals as well as by young people. It is a cause of dismay to me when young people are tempted and slide into car crime. I have had personal experiences. On one occasion in Scotland when my car was stolen overnight from a public car park, the police retrieved it, damaged, some days later, from a gang of 15 and 16 year-olds. On another occasion in London, close to these Houses of Parliament, the side glass was smashed, in daytime,
Before concluding, I should like to make a particular suggestion. Because computer games are very different from films, and from videos that involve viewing and not taking part, they should be in a separate category of their own. I suspect that provision was not made fully for games in the 1984 Act because such games were then in their infancy. I accept that such a change may take time and realise that primary legislation may be needed. I hope that the opportunity will be taken the next time a suitable Bill is being prepared. In the meantime, I trust that Mr. Whittam Smith, the new chairman of the board, will respond to the changing situation. I wish him all success. I beg to move.
Moved, That this House take note of the proposal to appoint Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith as a designated authority under Section 4(4) of the Video Recordings Act 1984, in accordance with the proposal laid before the House on 18th December 1997.--(Lord Campbell of Croy.)
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