HC Deb 24 October 1952 vol 505 cc1447-55
Mr. Patrick Maitland (Lanark)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 14, at the end, to insert: (2) Subsection (1) of this section shall not apply to Scotland. Hon. Friends of mine who also have their names to the Amendment have asked me to apologise for the fact that they are unable to be here this morning. We are anxious that subsection (1) should not have effect in Scotland, where an effective system is already operating to keep children from the greater of two evils, namely, undesirable company as being something worse than undesirable film shows. A voluntary system has been working in Scotland for 18 years. It was brought about by collaboration between the cinema exhibitors and the licensing authorities, and no serious argument has come from either the Wheare Report or the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson Stewart) to show that the system is not working well.

It is argued in paragraph 161 of the Wheare Report—it has also been argued by the Joint Under-Secretary—that the system proposed for England and Wales should be extended to Scotland in the name of logic. Someone else said that it was in the name of administrative tidying up. North of the Border we do not take kindly to being administratively tidied up, particularly when our system is already working satisfactorily. The appeal to logic is the appeal of the planner and perhaps even of the dictator. As our voluntary system is working well and no real objection to it has been raised, we are keen to preserve it.

On Second Reading the Joint Under-Secretary suggested that there was no real reason for refusing to extend to Scotland the system proposed for England, because most of the cinemas in Scotland were controlled by companies controlling the cinemas in England. I am told by people in the industry that only one-fifth of the Scottish cinemas are owned by companies operating south of the Border.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Henderson Stewart)

I did not say "most"; I said "some".

Mr. Maitland

We need not delay unduly over that matter, but it is important to point out that the proportion is only one-fifth. By applying the Clause to Scotland, we shall be imposing what is a doubtful system of English law, even though the daring action of a few licensing authorities has not been challenged. The Joint Under-Secretary listed nine or 10 counties and burghs where the English practice has been adopted, but that is a very small minority and it does not argue very cogently for the forceful application of the system to the whole of Scotland. We are bound to record that there is on the Statute Book an Act of Union which contains specific provisions for the recognition and preservation of distinctive Scottish law. It may be said that we are being pedantic, but a serious principle is involved and we cannot let the occasion pass without reference to it.

The Clause contains the term "unsuitable for children." I am now on rather different ground, for this is not merely a Scottish point but a point in general. That term is by no means clear enough. There are many arguments, points of view and standards by which the suitability of a film can be judged. I do not have the opportunity to attend the cinema more than about once a year and so some of my experiences may be thought to be a little archaic, but, looking back over films which were regarded as suitable for universal exhibition, I think, for instance, of "Ben Hur" many years ago, a film taken from the Old Testament. It may be said that it was entirely suitable for children, but it was a savage, bloodthirsty portrayal of events which one can only hope did not happen in the gory and expansive manner portrayed.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

"Ben Hur" dealt with something that happened at the time of the Roman gladiators, and that was long after the time of the Old Testament.

11.30 a.m.

Mr. Maitland

I apologise and bow to superior and more exact knowledge. I was confusing the New Testament with the Old Testament, not a happy mistake to make in a Scottish debate when we are all students of the Bible.

These gory and bloodthirsty films are not particularly educative or inspiring for children. The term "unsuitable for children" is by no means clear. Local authorities are bound to judge according to local conditions, standards, tastes and temperaments, and particularly according to the convictions of the neighbourhood, as to what may or may not be suitable for children. Films are passed for universal exhibition which can hardly be said to be suitable for children. That reinforces my argument as to what children should be allowed to see, and the way in which they should be preserved from seeing undesirable films should be left to local authorities and not settled by Statute.

I feel that die criteria which may be implicit here are doubtful. The present system in Scotland is working adequately and the argument of the Wheare Committee is only one of administrative tidying up, which is not an argument for changing the law. Where a system is working well, it behoves us to resist the attempt by the Civil Service to replace that voluntary system by Regulations.

I therefore plead with the Under-Secretary to consider this matter if it is still possible at this late stage of the Session. Above all, I submit that where moral law is effective Statute law is superfluous.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

Before the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland answers, perhaps an ordinary Englishman from this side of the House, might—greatly daring and with all apologies— intervene in what is, after all, a purely Scottish matter. As the hon. Member seems to be fighting a lone battle on this point, and those who had a great deal to say when we dealt with it on Second Reading and who put their names down to this Amendment—principally the right hon. and gallant Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot)—not being here, perhaps someone from this side might say a few words.

If the hon. Member does take this Amendment to a Division, we shall be greatly tempted to vote with him in order to keep him in countenance against his own side; but I think that he has overlooked the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has gone a long way to meet him in a later Amendment. It is not for me to say why he should have done so, because we have not reached the particular Amendment, but there is an Amendment to Clause 10 which gives the Secretary of State for Scotland power to postpone the coming into operation of any Regulations which would, amongst other things, deal with the powers given under this Clause.

In any case, I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the Home Secretary has promised us that this matter will presently be looked at as a whole, so far as children are concerned, and I would suggest to him that the right course for him to adopt is to wait and see the outcome of those consultations and any Bill which may result from them.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I hope that the spokesman for the Government is not going to yield to the hon. Member for Lanark (Mr. Patrick Maitland) on the basis of his very casual acquaintance with the Scottish cinema. He has told us that he goes to the cinema only once a year. He has seen "Ben Hur," which he thought came from the Old Testament, and it is presumably on this very slender basis that we are asked to agree that Scotland should be allowed to contract out of this Clause and these Regulations.

If the hon. Member wished to come forward as a kind of inverted Scottish Nationalist, I think he might have chosen legislation more appropriate than this, but I should be out of order if I suggested certain legislation on which he might have staged a more appropriate rebellion or mutiny against his Front Bench—if his speech can be characterised as that.

Even if he does not go to the Scottish cinema, if he occasionally goes to his constituency and wanders about some of the villages and mining towns adjacent to my constituency he will see on the hoardings abundant proof that the children need something more in the way of legal protection than these loose and voluntary arrangements which are made with the cinema proprietors. If he will carry his researches a little further, read the local newspapers and study the list of the films shown there, he will find that they are not entirely theological or quasi-theological.

In these days when every local authority and everybody who is interested in education is rather concerned about the effects of films upon the younger generation, I suggest that this is not an occasion where Scotland should contract out, but that there is every evidence that we should not abandon the necessary Regulations which we think are appropriate for the safeguarding of the children from films of a sensational and violent character.

Mr. Maitland

I do not want to prolong this discussion indefinitely, but I would submit that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has not pointed out why, when the voluntary arrangements have been working very well, they should now be legally tidied up. He has not dealt with that point at all.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

My hon. Friend has put his case with great charm and has not pressed it unduly. I do not think it could be said that he is staging a rebellion, as was suggested by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), but I agree with the hon. Member that this would certainly not be an appropriate battlefield for staging a rebellion because it is really such a relatively small point which is at issue. When we come to Clause 10 I will endeavour to explain to the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) why we propose to make the concession to which he referred. There is a perfectly good reason.

I cannot accept the Amendment of my hon. Friend for a number of reasons which I think will appear to him to be good. The intention of the Amendment seems to be to withhold from Scottish local authorities the power to attach to cinema licences conditions applying the "X" film rule, which excludes children, and also the "A" film rule. I must tell my hon. Friend that his Amendment would not in fact do that. Clause 1 of the Bill and the Amendments to the 1909 Act in the Schedule will empower the licensing authorities in Scotland as elsewhere to attach any condition they choose to a cinema licence, subject to a right of appeal to the Sheriff in Scotland—and all the Amendment would do if it were carried would be to remove the obligation which the Bill places upon the local licensing authorities first to attach the "X" rule for the "X" films, and secondly, to consider attaching the "A" rule for the "A" films. In spite of the Amendment, however, the licensing authority could do either of those things, if it wished. If my hon. Friend wanted to take this right out of the purview of Scottish licensing authorities, he would need a few more Amendments than this one.

I do not think there is any argument that the "X" film rule ought to apply. The Board of Film Censors which is established by the trade itself—not by the Government—has, I think, the confidence of the trade and of the nation. If the Board declares that a film is not suitable for children to see, then the children ought not to be allowed to see it. Scottish exhibitors have accepted that position and have voluntarily agreed that they will observe the "X" rule.

Is it really enough, though, in the interests of the children, to have only that voluntary arrangement as a protection for the children? I do not think it can be. I do not in any way doubt the sincerity of the Scottish cinema industry; but that children should be protected only by a voluntary agreement and arrangement made by the trade is not, in my opinion, good enough. It is essential that there should be something provided by Statute, giving the licensing authority the power to impose that restriction. I do not think that my hon. Friend could stand up on any public platform in his Division and tell his constituents: "I am not in favour of Scottish local authorities having that power of prohibition."

Mr. Maitland

I would have no hesitation in standing up anywhere for the preservation of a voluntary agreement, if it works, and I would say that in my constituency, even though I found myself bewitched by the charm of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. Stewart

If my hon. Friend thinks he can get away with that one, well and good. I can only comment that I could not in my constituency.

As regards the "A" film rule, the deletion of paragraph (b) of subsection (1) would be unfortunate, although it would not seriously damage the Bill. Local licensing authorities would probably consider the application of the rule in the ordinary course of events. But it would not be fair to my hon. Friend if I were to confine myself to the actual wording of his Amendment. Let us try to understand what he is getting at. He says that no case has been made for applying this subsection to Scotland. What is the answer to that?

The case is overwhelming. First of all, the Wheare Committee, which contained four Scotsmen, specifically recommended, after hearing evidence from the Scottish exhibitors and others, that the Scottish local authorities should have the same powers as the English. I observed that my hon. Friend used these words, which I took down. He said—I quote him— Matters of this kind should be left to local authorities, and not to Statute. That is precisely what we are seeking to do in the Bill. We are not saying that this shall be laid down from London or even from Edinburgh. We are trying to get the power left to the Scottish local authorities.

Secondly, I must inform the Committee that some Scottish local authorities, as my hon. Friend knows, already exercise these powers under local Acts and under Burgh Police Acts—although it is doubtful whether their use of the Burgh Police Acts is entirely competent. The three Scottish local authority associations welcome the Bill. It is not for Scottish Members of Parliament to ignore that situation. Indeed, the County Councils Association for Scotland have been pressing for something like this for several years. We cannot close our ears to that appeal.

11.45 a.m.

I do not think that conditions differ materially in this matter between England and Scotland. As I said on the Second Reading, speaking both as a parent and as a Minister, I cannot see that there is any sharp difference between the reaction of children north and south of the Border. Therefore, it is not possible to say that there is a sort of Scottish Nationalist view about this matter. Scottish licensing authorities are required by subsection (1, b) to consider—they are not required to do anything but consider—what conditions, if any, should be attached about the "A" film. I know it is the "A" film that troubles my hon. Friend.

What are the facts? The Wheare Committee showed that the "A" film Regulation in England has had all kinds of unsatisfactory results. I have the report here. The Committee said that the Regulation was not workable. Very well. The Consultative Committee are examining this very problem now. They may conclude that the "A" film classification is not a good one and that a different classification is required. All that we ask in the Bill is that powers should remain in the hands of the local authorities to put down such conditions as they think fit in the case of each particular type of film.

I have offered the Scottish cinema industry the concession that we will not expect them to impose the "A" film Regulation in Scotland until the Committee have reported, because the Committee may well report that there should not be such a condition at all. Why does one do that in Scotland and not in England? The answer is that in England the "A" film rule has been in operation for years. In Scotland it has never been in operation, except in the few cases which I quoted on Second Reading. Because it has never been in operation in Scotland we do not ask that it should now be brought into operation. I cannot understand why the Scottish cinema industry should have the least anxiety on this score.

The Consultative Committee are now sitting regularly. The children's subcommittee are most actively engaged in this operation. They have a big job to do and they may take a little time before they make their recommendations. I am sure that Scottish local authorities would not wish to act until they have seen the recommendations of the Committee and I am equally sure that if we passed the Amendment and took away from Scottish local authorities the power at that future date to apply certain restrictions the Scottish local authorities would be very angry with us, and in my opinion quite properly so.

For all these reasons I appeal to my hon. Friend not to press the Amendment. It would be a very great pity if our country, our local authorities and our children were not to receive as much protection by law as is given in England. They deserve the protection of the House of Commons.

Mr. Maitland

I thank my hon. Friend for his most lucid and persuasive explanation, and in particular for drawing our attention to the approaches made to him by local government bodies. This was the most persuasive argument in his most impressive armoury. I would point out that our Amendments were put on the Order Paper before we knew of the Amendment which stands in the name of the Secretary of State for Scotland. We should like to have a separate Scottish Bill, and thoroughly discuss it in the Scottish Standing Committee, but that is not possible. In view of the explanation which has been given, and of the arguments, and above all in view of the Amendment standing in the name of the Secretary of State for Scotland, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.