HC Deb 06 June 1980 vol 985 cc1832-44 9.36 am
Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 4, line 26, after ' 5 ' insert ' (1) '.

Mr. Speaker

With this we may take amendment No. 5, in page 4, line 30, at end insert— '(2) The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument extend the provision contained in this section beyond 1985 for such further periods as he deems fit. (3) Before making any order under this section the Secretary of State shall consult such bodies, including the Cinematograph Films Council, as he deems appropriate. (4) No order shall be made under this section unless a draft of the order has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'.

Mr. Davis

At the outset, may I note that the Under-Secretary is making a last-minute debut in the world of the silver screen? We welcome him to these debates. I recognise, as he will also recognise, that if we had not put down any amendments he would have become a star of the silent screen, and we would have hated that to happen. Today, he has his chance to be a star—not a heavenly body, because that is impossible for the Minister. He could have his name in lights, although he might not remain a member of the Government if that were so. If, in the absence of the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), the Under-Secretary, with his characteristic good sense, were to ignore the jargon which has been put in front of him marked " Resist " and yielded to the temptation to accept this amendment, he would have a happy future, certainly in the eyes of the Opposition.

In these amendments, we are arguing that the Secretary of State should reserve to himself the ability to extend the quota beyond 1985, subject to parliamentary approval. In this sense, it is the antithesis of the power that the Minister seeks to take in clause 7, where he has the ability to suspend, subject to parliamentary approval, the quota system before 1985. The Government's proposals in that respect are contrary to the interests of the film industry. They will create a sense of uncertainty. They will not bolster confidence, which the film industry needs. Our provision is designed to mitigate the problems besetting the industry at present.

It is not only the United Kingdom film industry that is going through a difficult period. Throughout the world there is a serious economic problem—a problem of recession—affecting the film industry and many other industries. I understand that in the United States attendance at the cinema—the movies, as they put it—is down by about 6 per cent. Admission prices are constantly escalating. The cost of film production is constantly increasing. The attraction of staying at home as against going to the cinema becomes more and more inviting.

Against that, it is extremely important to retain an indigenous quality concerning film making, because this is something wider than the film industry itself. It has significance in asserting the values in which we believe, which are firmly rooted in this country. It would be extremely dangerous to ignore that. It is extremely important, too, in seeking to abate the uncertainty which afflicts the film industry, which represents a threat to employment and a threat to the film-making expertise which can so easily be allowed to drift away from this country, to do whatever we can, as I have said previously, to bolster the industry's confidence.

I regret to say that I do not believe that this timid Bill is likely to do that. But, at the very least, the Government ought to say that the measure of protection which the British film industry has enjoyed over a period as a result of the quota should be continued and should not have a sword of Damocles hanging over it, as would be the situation as a result of clause 7. So we are taking a very different approach to this matter from that which the Government have advised.

The quota is supported by substantial sections of the industry, although I concede that it is not universally popular. The Minister has received advice, upon which he has acted, at least in part, that the quota should go altogether. I suppose that we ought to be thankful for small mercies in that the Minister has not acted as he has been advised. We take the view, contrary to the advice which he has received, that the quota is an imperative in protecting British films and in enabling films to be shown that we might not otherwise see.

Perhaps at this stage I may briefly summarise the arguments concerning the support for the quota, First, it provides some measure of stability of employment in an area in which employment has proved to be uncertain over a long period. Secondly, it ensures the supply of films—not as many as we would like—which have a firm root in the United Kingdom, which enable the vast talents that are here to be utilised and which enable us to use the experience that we have here to depict this country's way of life. It ensures, too, that we are able to maintain that expertise in this country. Let me say in parenthesis that, when it comes to the blockbusters in which British talents are used to such a degree, it is important to recognise that if we did not maintain the talent and the facilities of which I have spoken, in which this country's film industry is still rich, it would have an adverse effect on that form of production, too.

9.45 am

I do not gainsay the fact that although in this respect, talking of the blockbusters, it is a good thing that we are able to utilise these talents as a result of this factor, what I am really talking about is the need to maintain an indigenous quality in our film-making and to be able to produce films which have an intrinsic British quality.

In saying that—I come to the third argument here—one also has to see the arguments which I have adduced against a backcloth of influence and dominance on the part of major United States film distributors. The quota is essential in giving exhibitors a duty to show some British films where otherwise they would probably not be exhibited at all, or very briefly.

During our debates in Committee, the Minister presented what I considered to be an unconvincing argument against an extension of the quota that we were advancing. What he said, first, was that it was all a matter of judgment. He said that it was less likely that he would get his new legislation—there is no argument that new legislation will be required—because of the attitude of the Government's business managers. I am not attributing the exact words, because the Minister was not nearly as offensive about the Government's business managers as I was. Effectively, what he was saying was that his task would be far more difficult in the face of the Government's business managers because, if he had the power to extend the quota, they would say—because this particular type of legislation does not have much political sex appeal—that there was no reason for them to give time for further legislation even if there was a manifest demand for radical change.

I find that argument singularly unconvincing. I have had some experience in this regard. Certainly the Committee was at one in saying that there would be a substantial need for new legislation. Quite apart from the questions of the quota and of the levy, there are many other matters which will need to be dealt with in the light of the rapidly changing scenario in the film industry—the new technology, the relationship with television, video discs and so on—and the power of the duopoly, which my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) and I have raised on a number of occasions. All these are factors which will need to be looked at.

But when the Minister says that it is a question of judgment and that he would be singularly ill placed to advance a case for additional legislation, notwithstanding all the radical changes that are demonstrably necessary, if he were faced with the sort of amendment that we propose, I think, with great respect, that he is using that argument to defeat the amendment rather than treating it on its merits.

The second point that the Minister raised in arguing about clause 7 was to adopt a totally different argument, because, as I have said previously, hovering over the quota, and, therefore, hovering over the interests and the confidence of the industry during the next five years, is the power that he is taking to suspend the quota altogether, albeit that he will be required to get the affirmative approval of both Houses of Parliament. I think that the argument that he has adduced in that respect is utterly wrong and is creating quite unnecessary anxiety in the industry, which will also affect the stability of employment in the industry and many other matters.

I turn from my arguments in favour of extending the quota, having also adduced arguments to rebut the Minister's arguments for clause 7, to certain other aspects of amendment No. 5. We, too, adopt the line that any order made in this behalf should have the approval of both Houses. The second and important aspect, covered by our new subsection (3), is that before he sought to obtain any power under the clause the Secretary of State would have to consult such bodies, including the Cinematograph Films Council, as he deems appropriate. We take the view that the consultation should be wider than the consultation that the Minister normally is statutorily bound to carry out, which is limited to the council.

I believe that there is a feeling in the industry that that consultation is far too narrow and that the Minister should be under a statutory requirement to consult on a far wider basis. That matter is also dealt with in another amendment, in respect of which I do not propose to take up much time, because the Minister may feel it convenient, in the light of our proposed subsection (3), to deal with the point in this debate. Suffice it to say that we agree with the arguments, with which the Minister will be familiar, that the consultation currently required by statute is too limited, and, therefore, we wish to extend it.

In dealing with the Eady levy in Committee, the Minister's colleague was reasonably forthcoming. After I had argued a similar point in relation to the levy, he said: Yes, I can certainly respond to the hou. Gentleman on that. I should be surprised if between now and 1985 we were about to find another such effective means of obtaining money to assist the industry that we could dispense with the Eady levy".—[Official Report, Standing Commitee A, 8 May 1980; c. 60.] The hon. Gentleman added that he was awaiting the views of the interim action committee, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), but he was very forthcoming, saying, in effect, " I can see every reason for extending the levy in due course if we come to further legislation, or whatever." But he was much less forthcoming about this matter.

I should like the Under-Secretary to say that he will abandon clause 7, but I see no sign of that on the Notice Paper. However, it is incumbent upon him to reassure the industry that the quota will not be suspended. There is great anxiety about this matter. The hon. Gentleman will do much to add to the waning confidence in the industry if he gives it this reassurance.

The introduction of clause 7 was unnecessary. It has caused unnecessary anxiety to an industry that can well do without it. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will have something far more reassuring to tell the House on this important point than his colleague did in Committee.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

I should like, first, to say how disappointing the selection of amendments is. I am in no way challenging the Chair, because that is not possible, but we should have liked to see a wider selection, including some of the new clauses, particularly the new clause that would have established a British film authority.

I come immediately to the amendments before us, Nos. 4 and 5. It is important for the confidence of those in the British film industry at least to give them the knowledge that the Minister has powers that he may use to extend the quota system if the industry, which is already minuscule, should see itself facing total extinction. The industry is minuscule, as described in an article in The Guardian of 31 May, quoting Michael Houldey, a British television director: ' The British feature film industry is nonexistent ', Houldey says. ' And television, in spite of the coming fourth channel, just doesn't have any work. I've spent all my working life in television, and today I'm just finding it difficult to get either drama or documentaries.' He was out in Hollywood, trying to promote films to give himself an opportunity to work.

That article contains a number of comments that I shall go into on Third Reading about the British directors who have left this country, not, as the article and their comments make clear, to line their pockets, but because they want to make films. If we are to retain an opportunity for people in this country to make films about this country, to make indigenous films and not cheap imitations of Hollywood, as one of the young directors describes much of the film-making in this country, we must give the Secretary of State powers that he can use in a time of difficulty to say "We shall make sure that the minimum exhibition time of British films is maintained."

The Minister may well argue that over the past nine years the quota of first features has been exceeded anyway. In 1979 it was 36.8 per cent. when the standard, prescribed rate was 30 per cent. In 1978 it was 33.2 per cent. Therefore, the quota has been filled, and the hon. Gentleman may well ask " As it has always been exceeded, why worry about the future?" But anyone who takes the slightest interest in the industry will know that there is always good cause to worry about the future. One cannot say with certainty from year to year that the quota will be exceeded, in spite of the experience of nine years when it has been.

Therefore, I believe that the amendment will be useful simply so that the industry will know that the Minister has powers for use in a crisis, if it were affected to such an extent that there was no opportunity for films to be shown. If one makes films, one must have an opportunity to show them. The quota system was designed to provide that opportunity against an overwhelming importation of American products.

Since those days the American products have been dominant. In some instances the definitions of " British films " are less than satisfactory, with the result that mid-Atlantic films have been included in the quota. Nevertheless, in spite of the imperfections, if there are indigenous films that are concerned with the character and nature of this country instead of aiming at a synthetic, mid-Atlantic market, it will give confidence to the makers—they exist, and they want the opportunity to make films—to know that the Minister has additional powers to require the quota to be extended. We are not saying that the Minister " shall " have additional powers; the word in amendment No. 5 is " may ". It says that he may beyond 1985 extend the existing provisions, and that seems entirely reasonable.

This is one of the rare occasions on which I am prepared to give the Government any powers at all to extend anything. If I were the Minister, I would eagerly seize the opportunity, because if I can take powers away from this Government I shall be happy to do so. The reality is that the Government are likely to be in office for a year or two, or perhaps some months. I am prepared to incorporate such a provision in the Bill so that a statutory instrument can be presented to the House if there is a crisis.

10 a.m.

The amendment says " beyond 1985." Of course, by that time there will be a change of Government, but the power will be there. One difficulty is that there is not always time to provide new legislation. Therefore, while we are using an opportunity to provide legislation for the film industry, it seems desirable to ensure that the Secretary of State—in case a fresh Government with an enormous economic crisis on their hands and urgent priorities to consider do not have time to promote new legislation immediately—has the opportunity to extend the powers in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis) mentioned consultation. There are bodies, such as the Association of Independent Producers, which are lively, which have contributed such fresh thinking to the industry and which seem to be concerned to make and exhibit British films. I should have thought that the Association of Independent Producers was the kind of body that the Secretary of State might have in mind when considering the organisations that he can deem appropriate for consultation when extending the quota period.

With the Government's general policy of non-intervention in anything except trade unions, there is a feeling among some people that they might allow the quota to wither away. Acceptance of the amendment would help to restore the confidence of people and give them a degree of certainty. I am talking about people who are not politically partisan and who want to feel that, whatever the complexion of the Government, there will be an opportunity to retain some of the facilities for making and screening British films.

I hope that the Minister will look kindly on the amendment. Although we were reasonable and helpful in Committee, as we are on every Bill, the Government refused to accept any amendments. It was only towards the end of the Committee proceedings, when the Minister expressed great disappointment in the Labour side, that we felt we had expressed a clear and independent view. In view of the general wish of both sides of the House to retain some facilities for an indigenous film industry, the Minister could go some way towards giving certainty and support for it by accepting the amendment.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

The United Kingdom has a population of about 55 million. It does not seem unreasonable that a population of that size should have a film industry of considerable scale and an interest in seeing that life and culture, including multi-racial culture, in Britain are portrayed on the screen.

The quota does not seem to cost the Government anything. It enables 30 per cent. of first-feature films shown in our cinemas to be either British or Community in origin. As the European Community provides only 6 per cent. of films shown in Britain, the quota compels a quarter of cinema time in Britain to be taken up with the showing of British films.

In view of the unemployment situation and the shaky nature of the film industry, it is important that the quota should survive and be maintained, and that distributors and exhibitors are persuasively made aware of its existence and of the need to show British films in order to maintain a native industry.

" The Europeans "—a brilliant, magnificent film based on the novel by Henry James—was made with money from the National Film Finance Corporation, but it has seldom been shown in Britain. Only a small audience has so far had the opportunity to see it. I submit that there is a need to ensure a better audience for films of such quality. If we remove the quota, the chances are that that film will scarcely get a showing. If it is to get very little showing, there is not much point in the NFFC's financing it.

It is said by some that a quota is not in the best traditions of private enterprise and that we should get rid of it, but the Americans have no qualms about protecting their industry. By analogy, the American acrylic industry has a two-tier oil pricing policy which enables it to sell oil-based products abroad, including Britain, at a far lower price than British-made products can be sold here. The United States takes that kind of measure to protect and develop its own industry. The quota is a method of protecting our industry. The Americans have a 44 per cent. barrier against our textile imports, whereas we have one of less than half of that. In that way, the Americans ensure that they penetrate our market, but we have a difficult job penetrating theirs. I am not blaming them. However, it shows that it is not inconsistent, even with the private enterprise philosophy of the Government, to maintain the quota to defend British industrial interests.

Film-making is a form of art. The existence of the quota means that British film makers have some assurance that there will be pressure to show their films. Therefore, we may not need to have so much violence in films as there is at present. I believe that British film makers often feel that the way to attract audiences into cinemas is to put large amounts of violence and sex into films.

Cinemas tend to thrive only in countries where there is no television or where television programmes are infrequent or appalling. It may be a tribute to the British television industry that our cinemas tend not to do so well, whatever the origin of the films shown in the cinemas. I hope that the television industry will continue to do well and to improve its products.

There is only one answer for the quota, and that is to maintain it. Distributors do not wish to be fettered by it, but in whose interests do they wish not to be fettered by it? Certainly not the interests of British film workers or the continuance of a thriving and surviving film industry.

I hope that the Government will take a favourable view of the amendment and will bear in mind that the quota is a useful weapon in reminding those in the film industry that they have an obligation to encourage and develop the British film industry.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I thank the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis) for the kind welcome that he gave me in referring to the absence abroad of the Under-Secretary of State—my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit)—who has previously dealt with the parliamentary proceedings on the Bill. I have no claim to stardom and I see myself as playing an essentially supporting role this morning.

I remind the House, as did my hon. Friend on Second Reading, of the speed with which technological advances are coming upon the film industry. Throughout the life of the cinema in this country, the structure of the industry has been constantly changing and developing. The hon. Gentleman fairly reviewed some of the factors affecting the film industry. Many of the long-term aims and the desire to retain an effective indigenous quality in our film industry are shared by both sides of the House.

The way in which the quota operates may prove inadequate to cope with those changes. The need to return to the House in 1985 will facilitate any adaptation of the present system and ensure that we do not let the existing arrangements drift on even if they appear not to be fulfilling their intended purpose.

The hon. Gentleman raised points on the quota that were discussed in Committee and on Second Reading. He asked whether the quota ensured that good-quality British films are shown. I am afraid that the answer is " No ". Often British films shown to satisfy the quota are the so-called soft porn films, which are made in the United Kingdom but scarcely contribute to our national standards.

Every past extension of the quota has been made by primary legislation. To make the quota a matter for secondary rather than primary legislation seems inappropriate. I have sympathy with the point made in support of the desire that our film industry should be able to make films portraying good aspects and qualities of British life, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) and the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons).

Mr. Clinton Davis

The hon. Gentleman says that it is time honoured in custom that the quota should be dealt with by way of primary legislation. How does he reconcile that with clause 7?

Mr. Eyre

Clause 7 deals with the special difficulties being encountered in the film industry and gives a degree of flexibility. My point was that the framework that applies to the quota has been dealt with by way of primary legislation. That is still the case in the Bill. I emphasise—this is important—that primary legislation enables the House to give the operation of the quota close scrutiny. Amendments to the legislation can thereby be more easily posed.

Mr. Davis

The Minister has come to the debate at a late stage, and I do not want to take advantage of him. However, we were deeply concerned about the inconsistency in that argument in Committee. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that flexibility is required for the quota, surely our amendment provides that measure of flexibility and is in no way distinct in principle from the degree of flexibility in clause 7. The hon. Gentleman must address his mind with more clarity to the argument about primary legislation. It has little to do with the point raised in the amendment.

10.15 am
Mr. Eyre

In essence, the amendments relate to a period following 1985. Moreover—this is a sound practical point—to have this power expiring in 1985, along with the proposed expiry of other powers in the Bill, strengthens the case for a comprehensive review of the industry before then. Many of the points made by the hon. Gentleman acknowledge the number of diverse factors bearing on the difficulties facing the industry. The quota is by no means an answer to all those problems.

I do not feel that to permit the quota to be extended by that means is likely to be in the best interest of the film industry. For that reason, I urge the Opposition not to press the amendment.

Mr. Davis

The Under-Secretary has achieved the same distinction as his hon. Friend in being equally unconvincing.

The hon. Gentleman says that the quota is not a panacea. No one has argued that it is. It is a help in maintaining stability of employment and a degree of confidence at a time when confidence in the British industry is waning. The hon. Gentleman is trapped between two arguments. He argues that the quota is unnecessary and undesirable and then seeks to maintain it. It emerged quite clearly from what the hon. Gentleman said that the Government are not sure. Notwithstanding the unconvincing arguments that the hon. Gentleman adduces, the quota is important in buttressing confidence in the industry at this time. I am sorry that he has seen fit to pour cold water on the amendent.

The argument about primary legislation, frameworks and flexibility is a lot of hot air. It was as much hot air today as it was before. The Minister cannot explain the inconsistency in principle between clause 7 and his rejection of the amendment. He is caught in that dilemma.

The hon. Gentleman's argument about convincing business managers of the need for new legislation before 1985 is a regurgitation of the old brief. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) disposed of that argument.

Mr. Cryer

The Eady levy, which forms the most important source of income for the NFFC, has been varied by this Government by statutory instrument. The process of varying the position of the components of the film industry is by no means confined to primary legislation.

Mr. Davis

That adds strength to the argument that we have sought to bring to bear on the Minister, evidently without success.

We record our opposition to the Government's reaction, although we shall not necessarily vote on the amendment.

Amendment negatived.

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