HC Deb 29 March 1960 vol 620 cc1285-96

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. J. E. B. Hill]

10.38 p.m.

Captain Richard Pilkington (Poole)

Mr. Speaker, I have to ask you very kindly to switch your attention from pigs and eggs to the problems of some films, bad films. I think the vast majority of people in the country and in this House are very concerned with the growing wave of crime and brutality that there has been since the war. That crime wave has been particularly evident among the young people of our nation, the people to whom we have to look for the leaders of the future.

For this unfortunate tendency there are perhaps half a dozen reasons: homes disrupted by the war, inadequate schooling facilities, inadequate discipline, not enough effective religious training, not enough clubs and recreational facilities, not enough police, and may be some other considerations. About all these things I have mentioned something is being done, but there is one cause for this bad trend in behaviour about which very little is being done, but which is the easiest of all the factors to tackle. Today, most regrettably, a deliberate exploitation of the baser, crueller and more bestial instincts of mankind is being made by some films, some T.V. plays and some newspapers. A cutting I have here refers to a T.V. feature the other day under the heading, "Sadism." In the papers this morning and last night there is a quotation from a statement made by a boy aged ten.

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is sub judice, I think, at present.

Captain Pilkington

Mr. Speaker, may I quote from a newspaper?

Mr. Speaker

No, because we do not know at this moment whether that statement is a matter of controversy. It is sub judice.

Captain Pilkington

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Of course, I accept your Ruling. There is, in other respects, a deliberate exploitation of the more unpleasant features of crime. This is being made, not only by T.V., instances of which will occur to hon. Members, but also in the newspapers. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) referred to some of the headlines in the News of the World on this subject in the debate on 21st March.

Tonight, I am concerned particularly with some of the films which are deliberately exploiting and degrading the existing tendency in some members of the public to whom these films appeal. If modern youth is to be conditioned to the violence and brutality to which I have referred, as before the war were the Hitler youth, we shall have the crime waves to which I have referred.

Mr. Speaker

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. and gallant Member. I am afraid that he will have to satisfy me that there is some Ministerial responsibility for the realm in which he is talking. He may be in order, but I have not in mind something which would get him into order on that basis. Perhaps he can help me.

Captain Pilkington

Mr. Speaker, I was going to set out the case and then indicate how I thought that the Minister would be able to help in dealing with this matter—not, of course, in legislation, which I understand is out of order. I think that if I make my case and then indicate how I think that he could have some effect upon this matter, it will meet the point you have made.

Mr. Speaker

I do not wish to disturb the hon. and gallant Member unduly, but perhaps if he could reverse the process and indicate how or in what way some Ministerial responsibility might arise I may not have to interrupt him further, but I am under an obligation to be satisfied about that.

Captain Pilkington

I was going to say when I had set out my case that I was not suggesting any sort of legislation but that I did think that the Government had some way of making their will effective, that I hoped that they would show that they felt some responsibility for this, and that I hoped that my hon. Friend would consult his colleagues to see what action he could take.

Mr. Speaker

That leaves me in great difficulty. Can the hon. Gentleman indicate some way in which he suggests, in the absence of new legislation, there is Ministerial responsibility in this matter?

Captain Pilkington

Mr. Speaker, I should have thought that the Government are responsible to a large extent for the behaviour of the community and are concerned at the existence of this crime wave and, therefore, are interested in anything likely to produce it. That is surely the responsibility of the Government.

Mr. Speaker

They are no doubt interested in that, but to bring this in order one has to find, apart from new legislation, some way in which responsibility can be imposed upon the Minister. At present, I find some difficulty in trying to help the hon. Member.

Captain Pilkington

I, too, Mr. Speaker, am finding some difficulty in trying to satisfy your quite proper attitude in this matter, but the censoring of the sort of films about which I shall quote comes primarily under the British Board of Film Censors, and I was under the impression that the Government have some contact with that Board. It is along that channel that I suggest the Minister would be able to function.

Mr. Speaker

I see that the Joint Under-Secretary is here, but I do not think that one could say that he was responsible for the activities of that Board. If the right hon. Gentleman were to help me, I would accept correction if he thought that I was wrong, but as at present advised I do not think that it is so; otherwise, it would be a method by which one could assist the hon. and gallant Member.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

Although we have an interest in the British Board of Film Censors, Mr. Speaker, we have no responsibility for its actions. We have some responsibility from the point of view of local authority interest in films, and my hon. and gallant Friend might possibly devote himself to that aspect.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the Minister for his help in the matter.

Captain Pilkington

I, too, am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his suggestion, and, strictly pursuing that line, I should like very briefly to quote the circumstances leading to my attempting to raise the matter now. I shall not take my own judgment but will quote some extracts from four different newspapers, all very different in character, referring to some of these films which are likely to have such a very unfortunate effect upon the community.

I quote, first, from a review appearing in the Sunday Express of 27th September, 1959. It referred to a film called "The Mummy," at the London Pavilion, and the following sentences are germane, I think, to what I am putting to the House. The review states: But we are now given a flash-back of Princess Ananka, describing the circumstances of her death. The only reason for doing this, as far as I can see, is to give you a close up of the way to cut off a man's tongue. Why put that in? Because the film's makers (Hammer Films), who have made a lot of money out of doing this sort of thing, believe that you will pay to see it—especially if it is in Technicolour. My second quotation is from the Daily Herald of 29th October, 1959, and refers to a film called "Eyes Without A Face," at the Cameo-Royal. It says: The daughter of a famous French surgeon is badly injured … and has 'an enormous wound instead of a face. Only the eyes are intact.' While she lopes about the house wearing a mask, Dad lures girls to his clinic, where he removes their faces and tries them on his daughter for size. He has already been successful with the same trick on dogs. I apologise, Mr. Speaker, for reading some of these details, but the review goes on to say: Finally, the daughter goes mad, and lets loose the dogs, who tear Dad to pieces … The lingering and obscene eye of the camera focusses on the following: The daughter taking off her mask (in close-up); the surgeon drawing a pencil round a girl's face as she lies on the operating table, then tracing the line with his scalpel (in close-up); the surgeon beginning to peel off the girl's face (in close-up); the face of the surgeon after a score of dogs have got at it (in close-up). The review very rightly comments 'Eyes Without a Face' is a piece of revolting, pandering evil rubbish. I wonder what the censor was up to, the day he gave this film an X certificate. The next quotation comes from The Times of 5 th October last, and refers to a film called "The Man Who Could Cheat Death." It calls it: A horror film from the Hammer stable, which specialises in this murky line of country…. It goes on to say: … there is something exceedingly nasty about the introduction of surgical instruments, and the scalpel here gets a little scene to itself. My final quotation comes from the Sunday Times of December 6th and refers to a film called "The Stranglers of Bombay," shown at the London Pavilion, the director of which was Terence Fisher. One sentence in the review ends: … a revolting little exercise in mutilation. For horrible tots and senile delinquents. Having put these revolting details before the House, I suggest that I have made my case that a deplorable state of affairs exists today. Perhaps I should not mention in any detail the British Board of Film Censors, but I hope that the local authorities will echo the sentiment behind a statement actually coming from the Board that people are concerned at the increasing production of films in which violence and brutality figure in degrading forms.

If this be the case, what are we to do about it? Can the Minister do anything about it through the local authorities or in any other way? I am sure it would be accepted by all decent people that foulness of this kind ought to stop. If film directors, television producers and newspaper proprietors have not themselves sufficient conscience to do anything, and if those charged with responsibility, whether it be the local authorities or anyone else, cannot do it, I suggest that the Government ought somehow to exercise the influence which they undoubtedly have to see that this sort of business is checked.

I know that my right hon. Friend is in a somewhat difficult position, because it is not wholly his responsibility, but he has been kind enough to help me already so that I can make my case. I very much hope that he will have something helpful to say in reply.

10.52 p.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)

I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Poole (Captain Pilkington) on raising this topic in the very difficult circumstances of an Adjournment debate. I shall address myself to something for which the Minister has direct responsibility. His Department some years ago introduced and had passed the Children Act, which governs the admission of children to cinemas. I am worried about our children growing up in the atmosphere of crime and violence which we see shown in our cinemas. The Minister has to carry out certain Regulations, and I urge him to ensure that they are carried out so that at any rate our young children are protected as the law says they ought to be against the kind of exhibition to which the hon. and gallant Member has referred.

I hope very much that some day the House of Commons will be able to debate the broader issue.

10.53 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

I shall, I think, find it easier to address my remarks to the speech of the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) than to that of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Poole (Captain Pilkington), although I fully understand my hon. and gallant Friend's anxiety about this particular issue. In raising this subject tonight, he is one of the many both within the House and outside it who are, quite rightly, searching for the causes of juvenile delinquency, about which no responsible person, let alone the Home Office Ministers, can possibly feel complacent.

In another field, others are searching for ways of dealing with young offenders. Important as this is, I think the more important matter is to try to understand and eliminate the causes of crime, particularly juvenile crime. Hon. Members will be aware, on this wider aspect, of the interest of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in the matter. I am now dealing with crime in general, because last year's White Paper on Penal Practice in a Changing Society gave some information about the Home Office Research Unit and the Cambridge Institute of Criminology.

More recently, my right hon. Friend has been considering what studies bearing more directly on the causes of delinquency might be undertaken. This is a large and difficult subject for research. Last January—this was taken up by the Press—several leading research workers and others interested in delinquency were asked to confer with senior members of the Home Office and other Government Departments.

I mention this because I think that one cannot tackle the subject of the debate without looking at the wider aspect of the subject. Although each of us may think at times that we know the answer to the causes of crime, or at least the answer to the cause of one particular crime, I think that the view expressed by the conference in January and in many other places in recent months is that there is no easy answer to this problem, and that further research is needed.

As the hon. Member for Itchen knows, I was a member of the Albemarle Committee on Youth Service which had some interest in this subject. There again the Committee came to the conclusion that there was no one answer to this problem, particularly the problem of juvenile crime. Following the conference in January, I hope that some further broadly based studies on this wider subject will be undertaken.

Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

Could I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to what he may be well aware of already, namely, that in the survey of leisure by Rowntree and Lauers in 1949 and quoted in "English Life and Leisure," an American survey on the causes of juvenile delinquency, the conclusion was that films of this kind—calculated to be 2½5 per cent. of the films shown in cinemas—had little or no effect on juvenile delinquency?

Mr. Vosper

I am aware of that survey but not of that conclusion.

The only survey undertaken in this country was in 1950, when a Departmental Committee examined the question of children and the cinema. At that stage the Committee found that the results of its inquiry did not fasten on the cinema any primary share of responsibility for the delinquency and moral laxity of children under 16. I gathered from what my hon. and gallant Friend said that he thought that the position had worsened since then, but I have no positive evidence to that effect.

Although this inquiry and, I believe, subsequent evidence have not found the cinema particularly to blame in this respect, there are undoubtedly occasions when young children are affected adversely by what they see on the screen. Therefore, my hon. and gallant Friend is quite justified in drawing attention to this aspect of the problem.

I think that there is a moral responsibility on all of those connected with the production, distribution and exhibition of films to be constantly aware of this danger and to ensure of their own free choice that no matter which would encourage a person to commit a crime or to indulge in anti-social behaviour should be permitted. It would be best, of course, if all this could be undertaken as a matter of voluntary restraint, but it has rightly been thought necessary to impose some machinery of censorship so as to limit any excesses which may escape the producer.

There is, of course, no State censorship of films in this country, but there is what one might describe as a two-tier system. In the first tier there is the British Board of Film Censors, appointed by the trade but consisting of persons with no financial interest in the trade. This Board sees every film before it is released for distribution. It may approve it, it may impose cuts or it may reject it entirely. Justification for the Board's existence is indicated by the fact that it fairly frequently imposes cuts on films and on occasions—as on a recent occasion—it rejects a film.

If the film is approved it is given a "U" certificate if considered fit for unrestricted exhibition, an "A" certificate if considered more suitable for exhibition to adult audiences, and an "X" certificate if regarded as suitable only for exhibition when no child under the age of 16 is present. There is no direct Home Office responsibility, but quite naturally as it plays a part in the general arrangement of censorship the Home Office keeps close association with the British Board of Film Censors.

The second tier consists of the local authorities who derive their powers from the Cinematograph Acts of 1909 and 1952. The authorities are the county and county borough councils, but their powers can be and often are delegated to committees of themselves or to justices sitting in petty sessions. They can also delegate to non-county borough or district councils. These local authorities can accept the decision of the Board of Film Censors or they can vary it to suit the needs of their localities. Thus they can refuse permission for a film which has received the Board's certificate, but they can also approve a film which the Board has rejected, and furthermore they can alter the Board's classification of a film. Although on occasion the Board and a local authority may take different views on the merits of a particular film, the ultimate decision about a film—and this is why I think, with respect, what my hon. and gallant Friend had to say was in order—rests with the local authority.

On the majority of occasions, as far as I can ascertain, the local authorities do act in accordance with the Board's decisions. I understand that a conference will shortly be convened between the Board of Film Censors and the local authority associations to discuss their respective interests and to see whether any greater co-ordination of views can be achieved. I understand that this conference will take place within the next few weeks.

In view of this debate, I took the opportunity yesterday of discussing the policy of the Board with one of its representatives. The Board has no formal written code, but I think it is fair to say that it is very much concerned about the type of film which my hon. and gallant Friend described, but particularly the type of film depicting crime and violence which could be copied by others, especially by young people. I think it is the imitating of crimes in films which may on occasion lead to crimes in actual practice.

It is, therefore, the practice of the Board to reject or cut those films which portray crime of a kind which might give encouragement to young people to go out and commit in real life a crime which they have just seen in a film; and, in particular, the Board normally cut out any scenes where reference is made to the use of a flick knife, knuckledusters or any other weapons of that nature which a young person or any young criminal could copy from the film if he were so inclined.

The Board told me that it also adopts a similar strict approach towards films which encourage anti-social behaviour, especially amongst young people.

Captain Pilkington

Would my right hon. Friend deal with the question of brutality to which I referred?

Mr. Vosper

I was coming to that point.

My hon. and gallant Friend referred to horror films. I think the public, on the whole, regard the horror film as a film of a Dracula type. Despite what my hon. and gallant Friend said, and despite the Press criticisms, I think these are somewhat infrequent nowadays. The Board accepts what it regards as legitimate horror films, but it removes scenes which appear to it as disgusting or repulsive, and it invariably places horror films in the "X" category, which means that they must not be shown to children. Although one does not wish to see horror films encouraged, with respect to my hon. and gallant Friend, they are probably not quite so dangerous, in the sense that members of the audience are not likely to go out into the street and commit a crime of some monstrous activity, as those films depicting the committal of a crime which is of a type that they can copy in real life.

I think that possibly some of my hon. and gallant Friend's anxieties derive from advertisements and Press comment on films of this nature, and this is a matter which has been brought to my notice on several occasions recently. There may be a tendency to try to advertise these films by drawing attention to the more lurid details of a film which is about to be shown. This is a matter which has caused some concern recently.

Under the existing powers it is possible for the local authority to control the nature of an advertisement shown on the outside of a cinema itself. It is much more doubtful whether these powers extend to other places. Moreover there is certainly no power to prevent the distributor, in a newspaper advertisement, from proclaiming the sensational nature of his film. I do not know whether my hon. and gallant Friend considers that powers should be taken to control advertisements of this nature. Again, it is a thing one would wish to be undertaken by voluntary restraint. I would, however, put the following point to my hon. and gallant Friend and the House, because I think it is the general experience—certainly it is the experience of the Board itself. The films themselves seldom fulfil the sensational nature of their advertisements, and very often they do not come up to the sensational nature of the Press comments upon their contents.

Speaking from my own experience, I think that some of those who criticise films do so on the strength of the advertisements, and sometimes on the Press comments, which do not always give a fair appreciation of the film itself. Nevertheless, on this point, which is causing some concern, I hope that those responsible for these advertisements will use a greater degree of restraint. It may be that the existing powers require further examination in this respect.

In conclusion, I would say that my hon. and gallant Friend has done a valuable service in raising this matter, although there is a limit to Government responsibility, and I hope that his words will come to the notice of those who have an interest in the production, distribution and exhibition of these films. In all matters of censorship—and I think the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen has this very much in mind—it is important to preserve a balance between a sense of liberty on the one hand and a desire to prevent the excesses to which my hon. and gallant Friend has referred on the other. But, in general, I think that the existing two-tier system of censorship— part of it voluntary—performs a useful task. What my hon. and gallant Friend has said will come to the notice of those engaged in censorship and in the production of films, and for that reason I think that this debate had been of use.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.