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8.10 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I entirely concur with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Home Office Minister who will reply to the debate, knows that we had correspondence last year on the subject of computer games involving the type of cases that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, has drawn to the attention of the House. There will be an opportunity during debate on the Crime and Disorder Bill, as I shall outline in a few moments, to address the sorts of points that the noble Lord so properly raised.

At the outset let me make three points. First, when Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith was appointed as president of the British Board of Film Classification I publicly welcomed his appointment, and I do so again this evening. He is a likeable, decent man, and will bring commitment and thoughtfulness to his work.

But the laying of this letter of designation under the terms of Section 5 of the Video Recordings Act 1984 gives the House a rare chance to reflect on the workings of the British Board of Film Classification and to comment on the circumstances on which Mr. Whittam Smith will endeavour to undertake his new duties.

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Thirdly, although there is precedent for the will of the House to be tested, it is not my wish to divide your Lordships' House. Amendment No. 270 to Clause 87 of the Crime and Disorder Bill, tabled by myself and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will provide the opportunity to test opinion, should that prove necessary. In the best traditions of the film industry, tonight's brief debate acts more as a trailer for what is coming shortly.

Our debate also has something of the air of unfinished business about it. Five years ago, in the aftermath of the death in Liverpool of a two year-old boy, James Bulger, the trial judge commented on the possible effect of video violence on the two boys who had murdered him. Before James's death I had taken cross-party initiatives in another place, seeking both tighter curbs on the video industry and greater protection for children. After a battle with the then Home Secretary, Mr. Michael Howard, but with a broad base of support--ranging from Mr. Ken Livingstone, Miss Clare Short, and Mr. Gerald Kaufman on one side, to 12 former Conservative Ministers on the other--'amendments were duly incorporated into the 1994 criminal justice Act. I recognise that in the present Home Secretary, Mr. Jack Straw, we have a Secretary of State who is alive to these issues and who is keen to get to the root of violence in contemporary society. I therefore have no doubt that Ministers in the Home Office will take these matters very seriously.

Five years ago, one of my chief concerns was the lack of public accountability of the British Board of Film Classification. That is the matter to which we return tonight, because it was left largely in abeyance. The then Home Secretary said that members of the public aggrieved by a decision of the BBFC could simply seek judicial review in the courts.

When, in 1996, the board allowed "Natural Born Killers" to be released on video for home viewing, a gutsy young woman, Yvonne Hutchinson, of Bradford, did indeed try to challenge the board. For a single mother without the infinite resources of the industry, it proved an impossibility. The recourse to law is not worth the paper it is written on. The industry knows that, and would prefer to keep it that way.

Section 4 of the Video Recordings Act 1984 charges the Secretary of State with the responsibility for ensuring that adequate arrangements are made for appeal against classification decisions. The procedure for appeals is laid out in a previous letter of designation. However, the 1984 Act requires only that provision be made for appeals by those submitting video works for classification. That makes the appeals system extremely one-sided and biased in favour of film, video and computer game producers. For example, although the BBFC recently refused to grant a certificate to the gratuitously violent computer game, "Carmageddon"--which, as we have heard, involves a driver playing a computer game which lets the driver run down, yes, defenceless pedestrians, the blind, and animals--the manufacturers were able to appeal and overturn the decision, despite the protests of groups such as the Automobile Association, which had no way of formally voicing their concerns. Other groups, such as the NSPCC, fall into the same category. On that occasion,

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even James Ferman, the director of the BBFC, attacked the U-turn, saying that the game featured "gross violence".

It is my understanding that the mechanism for appeals could be expanded in the letter of resignation to allow others to appeal against the BBFC's classification decisions. That could also be done through primary legislation and with cross-party support. That is why the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and I have tabled the amendment to which I referred. It would require the Home Secretary to give others a right of appeal against the BBFC's decisions, in addition to the right that the film and computer games industries already enjoy. That would not give everyone carte blanche to appeal against any decision that the BBFC makes. Appeals could be made only on the grounds that the video work might incite viewers to antisocial behaviour, crime or disorder. The conditions under which an appeal would be made would also be set out by the Home Secretary in the letter of designation.

At the moment the only way in which an ordinary member of the public can appeal against a classification decision is through a judicial review, which is extremely costly and expensive for all those concerned, in terms of both time and money. Unless we change these things, Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith will continue to head up a board where monied interests can talk but children's interests are stifled. How can that be fair or right?

This is not a trivial matter. Let us consider the violent society in which we live and the violent culture in which our children are being reared. Violence in Britain and in America--where it is considerably worse--has become gratuitous and random. It is ingrained into the very fabric of society. Violent films such as "Natural Born Killers" and "True Lies" are typical box office hits. In "True Lies", Arnold Schwarzenegger throws a meat-hook into a man's stomach; hurls a pointed instrument at his torturer which sticks in the man's eye; breaks a man's neck with his bare hands; and a driver is shot through the head and blood spatters everywhere. Gruesome, violent death, mutilation and serial killing all become an art form which can be turned on or off at the flick of a switch. Is that really what we want our young people to see?

The entertainment industry seems to be in the throes of a passionate love affair with violence, embracing it at every opportunity. We are becoming emotionally deadened by the horrors that we witness and have come to accept violence as normal.

Let us consider the effect on women. According to a study for the Broadcasting Standards Council, women's fear of male violence can be reinforced, and even increased, by watching videos and television programmes that depict violence against women.

And let us consider the effects on children. The Professional Association of Teachers spoke to 1,000 teachers in different parts of the country when my amendment to curb video violence was before Parliament four years ago. The response of teachers does not support in the least the view that children are cynical sophisticates, able to reject those aspects of the adult world for which they are not ready. One teacher said by way of reply:

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    "I am very disturbed by the totally unsuitable films and TV programmes which are available to young children. They often talk of nothing else and revel in tales of blood, cutting off of limbs, disembowelling etc. This is the norm so that children who do not have access to this material often feel they are missing out".

Increasing numbers of parents are using videos and video games as their electronic baby-sitter, allowing children to play with the games or to see violent videos so that they will not themselves be disturbed. Many parents simply do not seem to understand the harm which inappropriate entertainment can do.

More than 90 per cent. of the PAT respondents believed that children's emotional, social and moral development is being damaged, sometimes irrevocably, by what they see. Three-quarters of teachers also believe that there is a link between over-exposure to computer games and factors such as tiredness and inattention, heightened levels of aggression and a tendency to act out fantasies.

Commenting on the link between behaviour and viewing, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, wrote a letter to me which included a speech in which he rightly asked:

    "what proof are we looking for? Does the railway company wait for someone to be killed by a train before fencing off the railway line?".

Just before last Christmas, 27,000 people sent a petition to Parliament calling for tighter controls. The common sense of parents--which well understands that children imitate what they see--is often the best yardstick. I say to your Lordships' House, as I conclude, that the advertising industry would not have spent, as they did, £4,000 million last year on advertising their wares on television if they did not believe that what people see has an effect on those who view it. Clearly it has an enormous effect.

In challenging the letter of designation, we can take some useful steps by enhancing parental rights and strengthening the position of the public, by putting it at least on the same footing as the industry. In so doing, we will be enabling Mr. Whittam Smith to do his job more effectively. When the amendments to achieve that are considered by your Lordships' House, I hope that they will be given a fair wind.

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