HC Deb 22 July 1976 vol 915 cc2219-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Tinn.]

1.13 a.m.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

I am most grateful for this opportunity to raise a subject of importance. I declare a long and devoted interest in the cinema. I am currently chairman of the film and television panel of the Yorkshire Arts Association.

I am very much concerned about the arbitrary action of some local authorities. About 369 local authorities have powers of censorship, which they achieved during the recent changeover of local authority powers. During the changeover all local authorities were urged by an organisation called the Festival of Light to exercise their powers of censorship. These statutory powers apply only to children's films, but have been widely used, indeed solely used, for adult films of the X category.

Following the distribution of the circular, 62 local authorities asked cinema managers for advance details, but now only one, Bradford Metropolitan District Council, is pursuing this self-appointed role. Three other authorities, Dudley, Sefton and Cardiff, all attempt to impose conditions when granting licences for cinematograph exhibitions under the Acts of 1909 and 1952 for advance notification of X certificate films.

Under the 1952 Act there is a power of appeal for exhibitors against such unreasonable conditions being imposed. The Cinematograph Exhibitors Assocation successfully appealed against the imposition of advance notification of six weeks at Dudley, 14 days at Sefton and seven days at Cardiff. All such requirements of advance notice were held to be unreasonable. In the last two cases, costs were awarded against the local authorities and I understand that Bradford Council is attempting to impose a condition of 14 days, or 48 hours' notification. Notification of 14 days has already been held to be unreasonable and a time of 48 hours gives no opportunity to show films to the local authority when required in an advance screening before the public showing.

Against the advice of the Association of District Councils, Bradford Council is prepared, apparently, to spend a considerable sum, possible thousands of pounds, in going to court to defend the unreasonable conditions that it is imposing on licensees of cinemas. It may have to pay costs and it will all be coming out of the ratepayers' pockets, and all because it wants to stop films that have received a British Board of Fidm Censors Certificate, which sets national standards, from being shown, films which the Council considers unsuitable for the people of Keighley or Bradford. The same films may be shown in the area of every one of the other 360 local authorities.

The Bradford Tories appear to be ignoring their leader's concern for choice. Choice in this instance is to be dictated by a group of prurient councillors who believe that the films they see will deprave and corrupt others but not themselves. I know of no councillor who has resigned because of depravity as a result of seeing X certificate films. It is arrogant of them to suppose that they alone emerge unscathed but the rest of the population will be corrupted. It is also arrogant of them to assume that there is a difference between the people of Keighley and, say, Leeds, Barnsley, or Nottingham when it comes to common sense in assessing the composition and message of a film.

That is one difference between areas that can emerge and can lead to absurdities such as the film "Yellow Teddy Bears", which Blackburn Council said was too deplorable to be shown, nevertheless being shown in Manchester and coachloads of girls being taken to see it as an awful warning of the perils that might befall them in later life. In February 1975, for example, a Bradford local authority committee decided to ban "Emmanuelle" but never told the Keighley cinema at which it was showing, although in any case that authority was not the licensing authority.

This year "Emmanuelle" had been showing at the Classic Cinema, Keighley, for several days when the cinema was telephoned and then written to with a request or instruction to take the film off exhibition. This was clearly an arbitrary decision and an unreasonable use of the conditions of a licence. At the same time, because of advance publicity given to the film "The Exorcist", that film was brought to the notice of the local authority and it told the cinema not to show the film in future.

The local authority was warned in February 1975 that the cinema in question was and is facing problems, like many other cinemas with dwindling audiences. If the cinema were forced to close, it would be a great loss of amenity. It would be a double tragedy if it were forced to close by the arbitrary action of a local authority in removing films in this way, which would lead to loss of revenue. The same authority refused to purchase for a general leisure centre a nearby cinema which closed fairly recently. The Classic remains the only cinema which provides such facilities.

The problem of arbitrary action is not confined to Bradford. It frequently arises because of conditions of exhibition licence imposed by a local authority. A breach of condition can lead to a loss of licence and the closure of the cinema. One local authority required 50 per cent. of all films to be in the U or A category, which is impossible if a cinema wishes to show fresh films, because there are many more films in the AA or X categories. That was a condition that a licensee could not observe.

Bradford includes the following provision, paragraph 13, in its model licence rules: No improper character, prostitute, reputed thief, or other notoriously disorderly person shall be knowingly admitted into or permitted to remain in the licensed premises. That is an archaic phrase. Terms such as "reputed thief" or "improper character" are almost certainly in breach of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, but an exhibitor could face closure for a breach of that vague and possibly illegal condition. Another local authority imposed a condition requiring an exhibitor to refuse to show any film rejected by any other local authority. It would be impossible for him to know what attitude the other 368 authorities had taken to every film shown.

Such rules apply to every cinema, the small as well as the large. It is especially difficult to have them imposed at a time of economic difficulty. In the first three months of this year admissions were down by 25 per cent. compared with the same period last year.

The cinema is still an important facility. More than 100 million seats are still sold every year. The cinema is an important popular art form which should be encouraged and preserved. The Home Department can play an important part.

The Cinematograph Exhibitors Association and the Association of District Councils have recommended that local authorities should subscribe to the trade Press and pick out any films they might wish to see, should such films be liable to be shown in the council area. That is not entirely satisfactory. The Home Office circular of 16th April 1970, which I understand to contain all the most recent film classifications and model licensing conditions, should be up-dated and the conditions extended to cover the complete conditions, including safety matters, so that local authorities will require no other conditions to be included and the rag-bag of assorted odds and ends such as paragraph 13 of the Bradford rules will disappear.

Secondly, I request my hon. Friend the Minister to use his powers under the Cinematograph Acts of 1909 and 1952 to issue regulations giving legal status to British Board of Film Censors certificates, so that local authorities cannot refuse permission to exhibit a certificated film. They would retain discretion over uncertificated films. The board is basically a trade body, but in spite of that it has a distinguished reputation for setting national guidance standards.

But a trade body set up in 1913 with legal status for its certificates must have greater public representation and responsibility to Parliament. Therefore, it would be unsatisfactory as it stands. I am in no way criticising its reputation or the service it has given, but a body cannot issue anything with statutory force if it does not have some accountability to Parliament.

These measures would clarify and improve an uncertain situation pending the introduction of any legislation arising from the Law Commission report on the law of conspiracy. Secondly, the Government might consider inviting the district auditor to scrutinise expenditure on court cases concerning unreasonable conditions imposed on an exhibitor by a local authority, especially as in the current situation several court cases have established the nature and measure of these unreasonable conditions.

I recognise that Crown Court cases do not act as a binding precedent for future similar circumstances, but there was a clear guidance in those three cases to local authorities. That should be appreciated by them, especially at a time when public expenditure is under very great scrutiny, as we were made only too well aware today. Bradford, for example, appears to be considering that sort of expenditure when it does not provide sufficient telephones for the disabled or sufficient standards for the maintenance and repair of housing, and there are many other more urgent priorities on which money can be spent.

My hon. Friend should also know that although the 1952 Act gives a right of appeal to the Crown court, it is often difficult for a small exhibitor to go to the court on appeal because of the legal costs involved. That means that many small exhibitors have to accept the conditions without any right of appeal against conditions. It is a doube hardship. I am informed that the position for many cinemas is that if they lose their case on appeal, or do not get costs, they will simply be put out of business because their operating margins are so small.

Lastly, I should like briefly to deal with the subject of films on television, because it seems absurd to have a system of censorship for cinema films which may then be shown five years later, or earlier, on television without any guidance to parents about the contents. My hon. Friend should use his powers to require the BBC and ITV to exhibit certificates prior to transmission and also to state the category of the film in the TV Times and Radio Times and other similar publicity material.

As a parent myself, I should certainly welcome such a guide. I take an interest in the cinema. I read the reviews as regularly as I can and yet I would still welcome a guide. I should have thought that many parents, who may not be as interested in the cinema as I am, would welcome the guide even more because they do not know the contents of a film. A thumb-nail description of the film could be given if the BBFC category were given on exhibition. That would also end the absurdity of a system which can result in cuts being made in a film for cinema exhibition. I understand that this was the case in respect of a film called "The Killing of Sister George" which was cut and given an X certificate for showing in the cinema but which had the cuts restored when it was shown on television without any indication of its X category because that is not the custom or practice on television.

There is a strong case for ending what seems to be an absurd anomaly whereby films are certificated for the cinema and then shown on television with no guidance whatsoever. I am anxious that my hon. Friend should use his best endeavours to produce an up-dated circular and model rules which are much more comprehensive than those so far issued, so that local authorities cannot mangle them and produce the archaic absurdities I have illustrated. If possible I think that some sort of statutory force should be given to the BBFC certificates so that they would be required to be exhibited for television films.

1.30 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Brynmor John)

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) has raised a subject which is not often debated here. I am grateful to him for doing so. If I cannot deal with all his points tonight, I shall certainly write to him to express my views.

I cannot disguise from the House the fact that the censorship system we have in this country is a curious growth. Parliament has never legislated for films to be censored. If anyone had sat down to plan a system, I do not think that we should have ended up with the system we now have.

I accept entirely that the system may give rise to anomalies and to decisions which are all too easy to criticise. Like most of the pragmatic ways in which we have developed institutions in this country, this one has worked tolerably well. The evidence that we should need to change the system and to say that it should have a high place in the Government's social priorities is not available at the moment.

The origins of film censorship lie in the Cinematograph Act of 1909, which in the interests of securing public safety, particularly from the fire danger, gave local authorities power to license cinemas. Local authorities then began to use those powers to control the films which were shown, and in this they were upheld by the courts.

In 1912, the film industry itself set up a body which evolved into the sort of machinery which my hon. Friend has described. As he said, since the Local Government Act 1972, the film licensing authorities are the district councils, save in London, where the responsibility rests with the Greater London Council. The usual practice is for the licensing authority to attach to the licence granted to a cinema a condition that no film shall be shown without either a certificate issued by the British Board of Film Censors or the prior permission of the licensing authority, and that any film to which the licensing authority objects shall not be shown.

In effect, the licensing authority accepts the generality of the advice of the BBFC, but reserves the right to allow films without a board certificate to be shown and to ban films which possess a certificate from the board. So the board's position is without legal power but, as my hon. Friend said, it is of considerable influence in the industry.

My hon. Friend has earlier drawn our attention to the local authority question and to the specific matter which has given rise to anxiety. I am aware that the mechanics of operating control of films have been discussed among the licensing authorities and within the cinema industry. Bradford council has sought to require advance notice of an "X" film before it is shown, but this is the subject of challenge in the courts and since the matter is sub judice I had better not comment further.

I have tried to make it clear to my hon. Friend that how licensing authorities operate their film censorship functions is a matter for their own discretion. Neither the Home Office nor any other Department of State exercises any powers in censorship matters. Therefore, it would be wrong for a Minister to comment on the decisions of particular authorities. The Government's responsibility is for the system as a system and for any changes in the law which are suggested by an analysis of that system.

The system as it at present operates has, as an integral part, the local option. The BBFC operates very much with this in mind. It is, I suppose, a form of consensus censorship. The board itself recognises the possibility of divergence from the norm which it lays down not only as a necessary safety valve but as a means of preventing censorship from being a dangerously inflexible weapon.

I wish to stress two points about a centralised versus a local option situation. First, a centralised system would avoid the possibility of divergence between local areas as to what was licensed and how the situation was dealt with, and my hon Friend referred to the ways in which perhaps the system operates more restrictively than the norm. But there are instances where licensing authorities take a more liberal view on films and allow a showing of matters that are perhaps not more generally accepted. It would be a disadvantage if in imposing a central control there were the possibility of going further by exclusion as well as embracing the possibility of going to less than the norm.

The proposals that one policy should operate throughout the country raises two sub-questions. First, which policy? Should it be the policy that operates in London on the basis that what is good enough for London should apply to the rest of the country, or a policy involving questions about whether the kind of films now shown in London are or are not to be denied to metropolitan audiences because more provincial attitudes supervene? Secondly, whose policy would it be?

We return to the point on which I agree with my hon. Friend. It could not involve the board in its present form. I have made plain that the existing board is an independent and unofficial body with no legal powers whose role is that of an adviser to the film industry and to local licensing authorities. A formal system of control could not realistically be given to a private body to operate; nor is there any reason to suppose that the present board would relish being given such a power. Where one has a statutory or central control, one has the question of parliamentary accountability very much in mind.

Inevitably, my hon. Friend is led by the logic of that argument towards the proposition that censorship should be set up on a national basis, with a censoring body instituted by Act of Parliament and with the members of that body appointed by the Home Secretary. That would certainly not be welcome to the Government, because it would seem to involve them directly in questions of censorship. That would only lead to allegations of political interference, but also, having set up a system by which the Government are for one purpose empowered to censor, it would be open to extend the power in other cases where, in the eyes of my hon. Friend and myself, it would be patently undesirable to extend the power.

Mr. Cryer

I must make it clear that I never suggested that the Government should exercise centralised powers of censorship, but I said that there should be accountability to Parliament by the British Board of Film Censors in any centralised rôle.

Mr. John

I accept that entirely. I was trying to show where the logic of the argument led. I am not saying that my hon. Friend would wish to see that happen, but at the moment I do not see how that event could be avoided if there were centralised control. Although it may be somewhat idiosyncratic, I believe that the present method of censorship becomes more attractive when compared with the alternatives.

My hon. Friend did not raise the other alternative—namely, abolishing censorship completely. I think he will accept that although there are arguments against censorship of any kind, the fact is that, even in the shrinking market for cinema that he described, children go to cinema often and particularly in working-class, areas. I know he will agree that the cinema has been a powerful force in shaping his mind and my mind about attitudes in regard to the world generally Where that is so it would be difficult to have complete abolition of censorship.

There are criticisms but the experience of the Home Office is that there have not been many complaints about the actions of individual authorities. My hon. Friend mentioned conspiracy and the Law Commission Report, which deals with the criminal law in relation to indecency and obscenity. We are contemplating legislation as a result of the report, but that would not alter the censorship system.

Mr. Cryer

Will my hon. Friend comment on the suggestion of up-dating the model licensing conditions?

Mr. John

I shall come to that when I deal with some of my hon. Friend's specific observations.

The problem of the costs involved in court cases is best dealt with by the courts, which have discretion not only to deal with a licensing authority but with private challenges, as they have recently. My hon. Friend also discussed the expense of the right of appeal. There is a cost factor, but I hope that it does not bear too heavily on the small exhibitor.

The absence of widespread complaints about local authorities shows that there is now a more enlightened and tolerant view. I should study with care my hon. Friend's suggestion about the circular and model licensing conditions. Once we have local licensing, we must leave some discretion with the local authorities, but that is one of the matters about which I shall write to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend asked about the licensing of television films. Since television is in our homes, it is in many ways a more obvious way in which undesirable films can be seen by people to whom they are not suited, particularly by children—and all parents have experienced that from time to time. The Annan Committee is studying all this—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at seventeen minutes to Two o'clock.