HC Deb 07 May 1982 vol 23 cc377-94

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [30 April], That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]

Question again proposed.

9.35 am
Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

When our debate terminated at 2.30 pm last Friday I was in the process of rising to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd) on his initiative and good fortune in piloting the Bill thus far through the House. It was apparent from the detailed and exhaustive discussions last Friday that the Bill met with a good deal of support from hon. Members, and I have no wish to delay the satisfactory and happy completion of its passage through the House.

In many respects the Bill fills a great need. During our discussions last Friday on Report and previously in Committee reference was made to the situation in the countryside generally and in rural and sparsely populated areas where many cinemas have had to close for one reason or another. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) and other hon. Members touched on the reasons which lay behind that. If such cinemas have not been either demolished or made into supermarkets or bingo halls or put to some other use, I hope that the Bill will encourage some of those much-needed cinema facilities to reopen in sparsely populated areas.

Many cinemas in my area have closed, not so much because of the lack of popularity as because they have been unable to charge a satisfactory price to enable them to continue to operate successfully. I have no doubt that several of the causes of their being put out of business are dealt with by the Bill and that when it is enacted it will be easier for public cinemas in sparsely populated areas to continue to operate at a reasonable profit.

It has been said that the Bill is a step into the video age. A number of changes were touched on in Committee and last Friday on Report. New licensing procedures were discussed. They will now be carried out by the Home Office as opposed to the Customs and Excise. It was made clear that that change is generally welcomed. It will lead to greater efficiency and greater humanity and will be for the general benefit. However, when on the rare occasion the issue of a licence by the Home Office is refused, will that be final or will an unsuccessful applicant have a chance to submit a fresh application in the not-too-distant future or at least to be informed of the reason for the licence not being issued?

Last Friday, a number of hon. Members pointed out that it would be a good idea possibly to delegate to local authorities the Home Office duty of issuing licences. We quite understand that, if we are to get a nationwide pattern of performance, it will not be very satisfactory to have variations in the treatment of licence applications by different local authorities. In spite of that, however, and appreciating that we must have similar action throughout the country on measures of this nature, I hope that the advice of local authorities at least will be sought and that it will be listened to.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham tabled a number of amendments for discussion last Friday dealing with the level of penalties, and we debated whether they were sufficient in the light of the large profits likely to arise from the activities that they sought to curb. Although the level of penalties laid down in the Bill appears to be adequate, it has occurred to me that there might be something to be said for laying down a minimum penalty as well as a maximum penalty. I appreciate that it is a practice which Parliament has not normally thought it fit to follow.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

I remind my hon. Friend that there is a minimum penalty for losing a driver's licence in certain circumstances.

Mr. Farr

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that helpful advice. He reminds me that the loss of a driver's licence can incur a minimum penalty. But I pointed out last week when we discussed the penalties for other offences that normally the maximum is very high and there is no minimum. In respect of certain penalties the average imposed by the courts has been 7, 8 or 9 per cent. of the maxima laid down by Parliament. One way of explaining Parliament's thinking would be to lay down some form of minimum with which the courts had to comply.

I am glad to know that the Bill deals with home videos, apparatus and equipment. The pirating of video tapes is a £160 million a year business, of which more than £100 million is entirely illicit. That is a very large sum, and I believe that the Bill will go some small way towards making it more difficult for the pirates to get away with it. At the moment they have to fear a maximum penalty of only £50 which is laid down in one of the copyright Acts.

I am especially grateful to the Minister of State and to my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham for undertaking to consider before the Bill completes its passage through both Houses whether we should change its title. My hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friend both said that they would welcome helpful suggestions. I can assure them that a number of us are giving the matter active consideration. The present title seems to be almost Victorian. It is hopelessly out of date.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr Patrick Mayhew)


Mr. Farr

It is totally inappropriate to the jargon of today. Before the Bill reaches the statute book, there is a great deal to be said for choosing a more modern title.

Despite our thorough consideration of the Bill, many questions remain unanswered. One of them relates to video lounges.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that on Third Reading hon. Members may discuss only what is in the Bill.

Mr. Farr

I was about to ask whether it was clear from the Bill what was the position of a video lounge in a pub or a club. It does not appear to be covered in the Bill, but it may be, and that is why I raise it now. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham has said in the past that it is covered in the Bill, but I have searched through the Bill and, at the risk of getting out of order again, I must say that I cannot see any reference to it. I raise the matter because it is one about which the House would like some clarification.

Mr. Peter Lloyd (Fareham)

I can assure my hon. Friend that in my judgment he is in order in raising the matter because it is covered by the Bill.

The Bill deals with all manifestations of moving pictures exhibited for gain. My hon. Friend has in mind the showing of a video film in a pub or a club. The question for consideration is whether any charges are made and, if so—even if they are purported to be for other services or for drinks—it will be up to the courts to decide whether the total enterprise, including the video display, is for gain. The passing of money will be a prima facie suggestion that it is for gain, and it will be up to those charged with an offence to rebut that evidence.

Mr. Farr

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has set my mind at rest on two counts: first, that I was in order after all, and, secondly, that video lounges in pubs or clubs are covered by the Bill.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State will tell us the Home Office's thinking in respect of the regular alteration or updating of the level of penalties. Certain measures in the past have been subject to the updating of the maximum penalties in criminal justice Acts. Bearing in mind the tremendous profits which can be made from video displays, to say nothing of the change in the value of money, I hope that my hon. and learned Friend can advise the House whether the maximum penalties provided for in the Bill are to be constant or whether they will be subject to periodic review.

With those few remarks, again I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham.

9.49 am
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd). I want also to pay tribute to all those right hon. and hon. Members who play a part in our Friday sittings. The Bill is a good example of excellent use of the good fortune that an hon. Member has in coming high in the Ballot for Private Member's Bills. It has shown a way forward for the Government in many of the areas associated with pornography or obscenity, in that it takes an indirect but clear approach to the problems that can arise in cinemas and video lounges.

I said on Report that one of the advantages of having tight regulations for licensing, which I see as the essence of the Bill, is that it is clear that an establishment either has a licence or it has not. That avoids many of the problems in taking cases to court for the display of obscene or pornographic material. I have slight doubts about whether my hon. Friend is right in saying that it is confined to moving pictures. I do not know whether there is much of a problem with still photographs that might be displayed in a carousel through a slide projector. However, that is a minor point that should not upset the passage of the Bill.

Last week, I referred to the problem of cinema clubs—perhaps "clubs" should be in inverted commas—appearing in ordinary residential or suburban parts of the country. I accept that that applies equally in more rural areas. Naturally, my direct concern is for my constituency. I hesitate to see Parliament leave the law in such a confused state that these establishments could spread in the high streets and byroads of a constituency such as mine, which is almost exclusively residential and a good family area. It is the job of Parliament to make sure that those areas are protected, as well as trying to extend protection into parts of the central areas of cities where these establishments have prospered.

It is said that many people go to these lewd displays because they fulfil a need. I say that they provide a temptation that should not be there. I have travelled around the world, and in my opinion the cities where there is effective control of such establishments are no worse than the cities that have lost control. I see no reason why, if there is an overwhelming demand, people cannot elect to their local councils, the licensing authorities, people who fulfil the wishes of the voters. If voters want many licensed establishments showing the kind of material that I believe we can well do without, however attractive it may be, it is open to the electorate to follow that course. However, I hesitate to welcome Parliament continuing to allow unlicensed establishments that are clearly safety traps for the unwary, and which pass through a loophole in the law that allows them to display material that would not have been allowed 20 years ago.

My hon. Friend the Member for Market Harborough talked about cinemas. I am in favour of opportunities for cinemas to provide family entertainment. If we can get rid of the opportunity for some of these establishments to be converted into money-spinners for what might loosely be called adult entertainment, parents will be more likely to go out with their children for a shared experience to see an entertaining film. We should encourage, for example, more films like "Chariots of Fire", instead of many of the films that are frequently advertised in the evening press. Often, except perhaps at half-term and the first week of the summer holidays, it is almost impossible to find a film to which one can take a child under the age of 14.

Mr. Farr

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Only a few years ago in my constituency every Saturday morning a chain of cinemas used to show movies suitable for children. Often on a wet February or March morning, when the children were at a loose end, the cinemas were packed. It was an excellent practice, because the cinemas showed wholesome and suitable films. The practice has ended now, because cinemas have disappeared.

Mr. Bottomley

I accept what my hon. Friend says. Although I am probably one of the younger Members of the House, I remember that when I was about 10 on Saturday mornings I used to go only 100 yards to the local cinema, and for 6d I was entertained for two or three hours by a diet of adventurous and cliff-hanging films, which made me want to go back. I was in safe surroundings, which were fairly local. No doubt it provided a welcome break for my parents, and no doubt they said "We are very glad that young Peter has the opportunity to go out with other people of his own age." It was wholesome entertainment. We need to promote the positive, as well as trying to put a rein on objectionable material and opportunities.

I mentioned the need for clarity about whether an establishment has a licence. For that we are grateful to my hon. Friend for finding a way through the morass that has faced Parliament, although I recognise that, outside the Bill, at some stage more attention will need to be paid to the Williams committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough raised the matter of minimum penalties. I am glad that the Bill establishes maximum penalties at a high level. In my view, it would have been difficult to put in minimum penalties, because there could be prosecutions on technicalities. Although there should not be too many prosecutions on pure technicalities, one should allow the courts to impose small penalties for minor offences. If, for example, a fire exit sign was missing and had been missing for some time, it is perfectly reasonable for there to be a prosecution and for a minimum penalty to be imposed in such circumstances.

However, that is almost in parenthesis. It is important to recognise that Parliament lays down high maximum penalties for offences of the kind described in the Bill because of the financial encouragement to operators to repeat the offence. With low penalties they could view it as a low operating tax. One of the reasons why we need to explain why penaalties appear to be higher in this kind of neo-property matter than in certain criminal offences against the person is the financial inducement to the offender to repeat the offence. With certain exceptions, people committing criminal offences against the individual are rarely likely to repeat them purely for financial reasons. The exceptions, of course, are bank robbers and people who rob sub-post offices.

I conclude by returning to a subject that I raised on Report. The opportunities for corruption that are available to licensing operators and to the police exist when there is a lack of clarity about the procedures and a lack of predictability in the judgments of the courts. One of the reasons for the spread of sex cinemas in the centres of cities has been the difficulty of prosecution. Every time a conviction fails, it encourages those who are supposed to be monitoring the operation of these establishments and the material that they provide to look the other way. Once that kind of doubt arises, some of the corruption that has existed in the past will happen again. I very much doubt whether many of the establishments that exist in the centre of London should be operating under existing legislation. Once we have the licensing provisions, it will become clear that they are not authorised and no amount of corruption will deal with the central issue of whether or not they have a licence.

I echo the gratitude of many families around the country to my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham for promoting this Bill. It is the kind of issue on which the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister have helped to raise the status of Parliament, by showing that, even at a time when there are great issues of party controversy and a national crisis, Parliament still has time to plug away at blocking loopholes that have led many unscrupulous and unworthy people to prey on society and create the kind of conditions that make family life more difficult. I greatly welcome the Bill, and I hope that it has a speedy passage through the other place.

9.59 am
Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Like my hon. Friends, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd) on his prescience in promoting this modest but important measure to plug a loophole in our cinematographic licensing laws.

I suspect that today we shall be discussing not only this Bill but the Firearms Bill. Therefore, at the outset, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has facilitated the progress of both Bills in the House. He has frequently been unfairly accused of not progressing legislation to deal with problems of violence, sadism, pornography and the many other disagreeeable aspects which in my judgment have arisen in part as a fall-out from the so-called permissive society of the 1960s. The truth is the opposite. No Home Secretary has shown more dilligence or a greater desire to advance legislation designed to deal with the moral corruption of our society than my right hon. Friend. It is therefore proper that tribute be paid to him and that the many false accusations made against him should once and for all be dispersed

As I said, the Bill plugs a loophole. The Act which it effectively amends originally excluded from the licensing requirements film exhibitions given in private dwellings—film exhibitions to which the public were not admitted or were admitted without payment—and film exhibitions given by organisations certificated as non-profit-making by the Customs and Excise. In short, Parliament originally confined the licensing arrangements to commercial cinemas and excluded genuine private film societies and charitable, educational, church, political and sporting organisations which might wish from time to time to show films as part of their general programme of activities. I think that that is a fair description of the state of the law that faced my hon. Friend when he introduced his Bill.

Those exceptions, designed to avoid unnecessary restrictions, have in fact created a loophole which has increasingly been exploited by cinemas which, in effect, are open to the public, but which masquerade as private clubs to escape the limitations and obligations of a licence in so far as it would apply if they were commercial cinemas.

The police have found it almost impossible to bring successful prosecutions, due to the loopholes that I have described. I am sure that the Bill will greatly assist the police, especially the Metropolitan Police, in their efforts to stamp out the vile practices now found in so many parts of Soho. Moreover, the penalties available under the previous legislation were far too light. As a result, even if clubs were prosecuted, they could virtually laugh at the law as the penalties that could be imposed on them were derisory by comparison with the profit to be made from these so-called private displays.

As my hon. Friend has recognised, earlier attempts were made to remedy the problem—for example, in 1973, when a Bill received a Second Reading but in practice got nowhere. Therefore, with the assistance of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—I think that my hon. Friend will agree on that—my hon. Friend has returned most effectively to the charge.

I wish to make three points—one general, and two specific. In general, I believe that there is a connection between publicly exhibited pornography, sadism and violence and the growth of crime in our society. I appreciate that that proposition is not directly provable and that many sociologists argue that there is no positive evidence to prove that the crime rate increases as pornography, violence and sexual display are generated in our society. I can only say that the experience of many who have to deal with criminals is that from time to time such offenders are so titillated and stimulated by the display of sadism and sexual violence that they come out of a club or cinema in a state likely to lead them to commit further violence. The evidence is anecdotal rather than quantitative, but I have little doubt that the public display of sadism, cruelty and violence helps to generate crime.

As my hon. Friend said, the violence displayed at many of these cinemas is not necessarily sexual. He referred to some of the Kung Fu films shown in so-called martial arts clubs in our big cities. In my view, such films are plainly calculated to arouse sadistic pleasure by the lingering depiction of pain, mutilation and death.

More usually, of course, the violence is sexual. There is rape, and, as an added bonus, the multiple rape or so-called "gang bang" in which the women's resistance is generally portrayed as being transformed by the enforced rape to which she is subjected into abject, almost animal gratitude. I can think of nothing that more degrades women than that. In so far as the Bill will help to avoid that kind of depiction of cruelty, my hon. Friend is doing an important service.

On the two lesser points, I remain concerned that the process of certification of small village clubs in rural areas, which will rightly continue to seek licences to show harmless films to local people, may become burdensome and expensive. At an earlier stage of the Bill, I drew the Minister's attention to various small clubs in my constituency. As rural transport has virtually disappeared, in many small village halls the over-sixties club, the Boy Scouts, the British Legion, and the myriad local voluntary groups, whose efforts we so much prize, put on small film shows for the benefit of local people. They are, of course, clubs or charitable organisations for the purpose of the Bill, but in future they will require proper certificates issued by the Home Office rather than by the Customs and Excise in order lawfully to continue such showings.

That is the essence of the regulations that the Bill will introduce, but I do not complain about that.

However, there is a problem of bureaucracy. The secretary of the British Legion club in a small village in the heart of Suffolk will have to apply to something called the Home Office. The secretary will need to know exactly what that means. Unlike most Government Departments, the Home Office does not have regional or local branch offices. The Customs and Excise does have such offices. Therefore, when the secretary of a club has a video cassette made up with which to show a little film in, for example, Norton, in the heart of Suffolk, or in one of the rural villages, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in your constituency, he will have to write to the Home Office in Whitehall.

The secretary will say that he is seeking certification to show a film or to enable his club to be licensed for the next few years so that it can show all films that are not—for the purposes of the Bill—objectionable. What will happen? I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State will take us through the stages to acquire a certificate. The Home Office—whatever that means—will presumably appoint an assistant secretary or a senior executive officer to be in charge of receiving and processing applications and of deciding whether a club should have a licence. That officer will need some criteria. He will need a bit of paper with some rules—presumably endorsed by a Minister—by which to judge whether it is appropriate to issue a certificate.

That is a perfectly conventional process of government and I make no complaint. However, if small clubs all over the country are to be told that they must do that, they should also be told how to go about it. As the House knows, there has been an explosion in the use of video cassette films. I welcome that. In many of the rural areas buses have disappeared and it is good that the over-sixties, the British Legion, and so on, should be able to see harmless, entertaining and exciting films in their villages without having to go to market towns where the cinemas are almost certainly showing only "X" films.

There will be many applications, and it is important that secretaries of clubs should know how to go about things. Will local sub-postmasters be asked to display a notice telling village clubs that they are required to seek licences and how to go about it?

May I have an assurance that the Home Office will deal with the matter with dispatch and that the fee charged will be reasonable? The difficulty is that fees are usually reasonable at the beginning. I do not know whether the fee will be £3, £5, or any other figure, but I hope that we shall be told. However, although the Government are happily reducing inflation, it will not disappear from our system. As the years go by, such things tend to be forgotten, but, after a sudden Treasury edict, Departments may start to consider their various fee-charging operations and may suddenly say "Oh, my word, here is the private club cinematographic certificate. The fee has remained at £3 or £5, so we had better increase it to £10 or £15." Like most of my hon. Friends, I have an interest in this matter, because those representing rural constituencies will suddenly be confronted by all sorts of immensely worthy village clubs that have been outraged by the sudden increase in the charge for the certificates that they must obtain to carry out a perfectly harmless activity.

In saying that, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Farham will understand that I am not criticising his admirable Bill, which I support. However, as the Customs and Excise is no longer to have anything to do with the matter—I welcome anything that gets things out of the control of the VAT inspectorate—matters will lie with the Home Office. That Department does not have a reputation for electrifying speed, so I should like to know how people are to be informed of their duties under the Bill. May I have an assurance that the paperwork involved will not be cumbersome and that the fee will remain reasonable?

May I also have an assurance that if a club's bona fides are not in doubt—I refer, for example, to an allotment holders association in Walsham le Willows—and if there is no reason to suppose that it will slip a Kung Fu pornographic film into the middle of its programme on gardening, it will be given a certificate that lasts for a number of years and not a certificate that has to be renewed after a year? Will such a club be given a certificate that will allow it to continue indefinitely, without a further fee, unless the police have reason to believe that it has offended against the law by importing some salacious matter into its normal programmes? I hope that the certificate will be semi-permanent.

By any standard, £10,000 is a walloping big fine for Britain. I have already mentioned the difficulties that I experienced when I tried to persuade the Cabinet and the House to accept that the fine for serious pollution commited by industry should be increased to £5,000. I had in mind the grievous offences of deliberately and massively fouling our rivers and persistently polluting the air despite all the efforts of the Alkali Inspectorate to clean it. After the greatest difficulty, it was agreed that the fine should be raised to £5,000 and applied to the large industrial enterprises that offended against the law in that way. But the House was right to be sceptical about any drastic increase in the level of fine.

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State knows more about the law than I, but I believe that certain offences are defined by the level of fine that the magistrates' court can impose. There is a convention that the seriousness of certain offences is virtually defined by the fact that the offence is subject to six months' imprisonment or to a fine of £1,000. Here, for the first time, we are providing that a magistrates' court can impose a fine that is wildly out of line with the normal fine that a magistrates' court is allowed to impose. Indeed, it is much greater than the fines that can be imposed for certain offences of criminal violence.

It would be ironic if the fine for showing an act of sadistic violence in a private club for gain was higher than the fine that we impose for such an act committed against an individual in the street. I hope that that will not be the case, but in my experience some police officers have been badly assaulted and knocked about and the magistrates' court has bound over the offender or imposed a fine of £300 or £400. There would he a great disturbance in the police service and among the public generally if a club owner who showed a film including vicarious, sadistic violence against police officers were to be fined £10,000 and stopped, with which I agree, whereas a similar act committed in the flesh could not be dealt with so seriously in the magistrates' court.

My hon. and learned Friend may say that the offence would go to a higher court where the fines are larger, but in my experience there are many cases where the penalties for violence against the person and for certain sadistic practices, such as multiple rape, do not always include a prison sentence. I accept that they do generally, but sometimes they do not. It is important that the penalties available to our courts should have, first, some consistency and, secondly, a relationship to the perceived noxiousness of the offence. My hon. and learned Friend, who has so much experience at the Bar and, since his appointment in the Home Office, will appreciate my point. I do not complain, because I believe that those who make gains out of vicious practices should be subjected to what, in effect, are terminal fines that will put them out of business altogether. The Bill will do that. I approve of it, but it is important that the sideways vision that Ministers can bring to the House is applied so that there are no anomalous penalties as between one offence and another. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will say something about consistency and the nature of the fines.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham has performed a public service. We should pay tribute to him and to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for taking a small but important further step in the control of sadism and violence in our society.

10.22 am
Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)

I wish to follow up the latter point of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) about the differences in fines and return, for final clarification, to the anomalies between the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill now in another place and the Bill that we are considering today.

During our debate last Friday the Minister of State said that he appreciated that it was difficult to have two different pieces of legislation, with different titles, which aim to do the same thing in the case of cinema clubs but which provide for different penalties. He said, in reply to my intervention, that it would be possible to align the fines. He did not say when or how that would be done. This Bill will now go to another place. Is it the intention of the Government or the promoter to align the fines to those in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill? If so, will the Minister give us that assurance, because it is unsatisfactory to have two pieces of legislation that are intended to tackle the same offence? It would be better to have one measure, but if we must have two there should be the same fine in both. Those who are prosecuting can choose under which piece of legislation to prosecute.

10.24 am
Mr. Tim Sainsbury (Hove)

The first Bill that received a Second Reading in the House after I took my seat eight and a half years ago was the Cinematograph and Indecent Displays Bill, which was brought forward by the then Home Secretary, now Lord Carr. It received an unopposed Second Reading. After that Bill, which failed because of the general election shortly after its introduction on Second Reading, a series of attempts were made to get the Bill on to the statute book. However, for a variety of reasons—not because of opposition in the House—those attempts failed.

During the previous Session we succeeded in getting on to the statute book the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981. I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd) on getting the Cinematograph Bill—the second half of the Cinematograph and Indecent Displays Bill—to this stage. I hope sincerely that this valuable Bill will come on to the statute book shortly in order to complete the process of controlling the degrading material that has been all too prevalent in our society and to which the House first put its hand nearly 10 years ago. I know from my own experience last year the amount of work involved in getting a Bill to this stage and I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has done. I also congratulate the Home Office on supporting my hon. Friend's efforts. I am sure that, as I was last year, he has been inundated with correspondence in support of his Bill. I know that it will be as warmly welcomed as was the Indecent Displays (Control) Act and that it will be as effective in its worthy and necessary purpose. My hon. Friend has done the House and the country a service in getting the Bill to this stage and I hope that we shall give it a Third Reading shortly.

10.27 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

It has been very pleasant for me to listen to the congratulations that have come from both sides of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd) on bringing the Bill so far. I was sorry that I could not be present at the previous debate on Third Reading, but I have read the account in the Official Report and I know that my hon. Friend received further well-deserved congratulations on that occasion. We in the Home Office have been glad to be of some assistance—as I hope we have—in getting the Bill to its present stage.

Perhaps it would be convenient for me to deal as best I may with the various questions that I was asked today before I come to the substance of my remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) asked me about those organisations that seek a certificate of exemption from the provisions of the Bill and asked whether an unsuccessful applicant would have the opportunity to re-apply after refusal of a certificate by the Home Office. There is no formal appeals procedure. That would normally be unnecessarily cumbersome, given the small number of applications that are involved—fewer than 50 certificates have been issued—but there is nothing to prevent a body from re-applying at a later date. The body concerned could expect to be told the reasons why an application had been refused. The reasons would relate to the circumstances in which, as the Bill provides, the Secretary of State may not issue a certificate.

My hon. Friend asked whether the advice of local authorities would at least be sought. It is open to the Home Office to make such inquiries as it thinks necessary in deciding whether it would be right to issue a certificate. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State dealt with this issue on Third Reading last week and said that relatively short inquiries would be necessary. I doubt whether it would normally be necessary to consult the local authority concerned. The bodies which have been issued with certificates to date are clearly eligible for them. This can be readily discerned from scrutinising their constitutions and accounts.

My right hon. Friend referred to accounts last week. I am sure that if it were thought necessary to do so, the local authority concerned would be approached. There is no bar on an authority being approached and the Home Office, being the sensible organisation that it is, would be eager to assist if it felt that the facts indicated that that would be helpful.

My hon. Friend talked about laying down a minimum penalty. He argued that a maximum penalty represents Parliament's idea of the gravity of an offence and that a minimum penalty would, as it were, complete the job. I am personally opposed to the idea of fettering the courts' discretion when it comes to applying a sentence, subject to a maximum that has been fixed by Parliament. That has been the traditional view in this country. One well-known exception to that principle is the statutory penalty for murder. Treason and piracy on the high seas still carry the death penalty. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) has reminded us that the offence of driving while under the influence of drink carries a statutory requirement of disqualification, but that relates more to safety than to penal policy.

We hold firmly to the view that it is not right to fetter the courts. Subject to a maximum penalty, the courts should have unfettered discretion, having regard to all the circumstances of the case established in the evidence, to fix the level of fine that they consider to be appropriate.

Mr. Farr

I accept entirely that my hon. and learned Friend is talking about a matter of principle. However, the range of different offences set out in the Firearms Act 1968 number 50 and they can be tried either at the upper or lower court. For many years both the upper and lower courts have inflicted well below 10 per cent. of the maxima which Parliament laid down where a person has been found guilty. Does my hon. and learned Friend think that in those circumstances Parliament's wishes are being ignored by the courts?

Mr. Mayhew

I do not think that that follows. Parliament fixes a maximum fine for application in offences of the utmost gravity. We can readily visualise in another context offences that carry a sentence of life imprisonment as a maximum but not as a statutory obligatory sentence that can be imposed in circumstances that are below the level of utmost gravity. In those circumstances—they are present in the majority of cases—it is appropriate for the courts to award sentences of imprisonment that are well below a life sentence, or, if 14 years is taken as a maximum, well below 14 years. Without wishing to comment on the levels of fine to which my hon. Friend refers, I do not believe that it can be said that Parliament's wishes are being flouted if it imposes a maximum fine of £200, for example, and the courts award an average fine of £25 or £30.

I understand the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough and it is one that we have had to deal with on previous occasions. We shall have to deal with it in our discussions on the Criminal Justice Bill. I must take a firm stand on the principle that I have endeavoured to describe.

Questions have been raised about the updating of penalties and the Home Office's thinking on updating. The Criminal Justice Bill provides for regular updating of penalties having regard to any changes that may have taken place in the value of money. When that Bill is upon the statute book it will be open to the Home Secretary of the day to place an order before the House that provides for the uprating of financial penalties. As the Bill is drafted it will not apply to fines that are as large as £10,000, but we propose in another place to make provision for fines of that amount. Therefore, I think that my hon. Friends can be satisfied that revision will be made and that this level of fine will not become fossilised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley), who courteously told me that a constituency engagement would prevent him from remaining in his place, said some kind things about the Home Office and its part in getting the Bill to this stage. I endorse his remark that the Bill will block loopholes through which the unscrupulous have made money out of activities of which Parliament has expressed strong disapproval.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) paid a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. It was generous of my hon. Friend to introduce his speech with that tribute. He and I know that his kind words have been well earned by my right hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds asked what the procedure would be for acquiring a certificate of exemption. He drew attention to the fairly modest scale of the organisations in villages and rural areas that would be applying for exemptions. He said that the bureaucracy should not be so great that such organisations would be discouraged, or would receive certificates long after the event in respect of which they were applying. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State dealt with this issue fairly extensively last week in column 1094 of Hansard. He made it plain that there will be a transfer of the function that is now undertaken by Customs and Excise and that no new bureaucracy is envisaged. It is a relatively simple matter. If a club does not admit the public on payment and it is not run for private gain, it will not need a cinematograph licence or an exempted organisation certificate.

An exempted organisation certificate will be required only when the public is admitted on payment on a more frequent basis than six times a year. Most of the clients will not need to apply for a certificate. Applications for certificates will be dealt with as quickly as possible. I recognise the need for speed. I also recognise that most of those clubs are run by volunteers who have masses of other things to do. The people who carry out those voluntary duties tend to have a large number of other voluntary duties and to be the people who do everything in a village. Therefore, we recognise that they will not be the people who have the advantages and assets of great business organisations. We shall do our best to process the applications at least no less quickly than they have been processed by the Customs and Excise.

An organisation applying to the Home Office will probably be asked to produce a copy of its constitution and its accounts for the previous year. It will usually be apparent that a body is eligible, or is not, as the case may be. A quick decision can then be given. The fee will be kept as low as possible. There are few applications and the work involved should be minimal.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I am greatly reassured by my hon. and learned Friend's remarks. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will clarify this point. Does he visualise the possibility that an organisation such as the women's institute or the over-sixties clubs could be given an overall certificate? There may be occasions when such organisations show films more than six times a year and when they make a profit. Their motive may not be gain but they may wish to make a profit from the showing to cover the overheads of hiring the village hall or so that they can make a contribution to other good causes, such as meals on wheels. I do not ask my hon. and learned Friend to answer that question at this stage. I hope that when the Bill goes to another place he will consider the possibility that some organisations can have a blanket agreement.

Mr. Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I entirely understand the thinking behind his suggestion, which is eminently worth considering. We should like to help if we can and we shall give serious consideration to his suggestion.

Certificates are currently issued for two years. In response to my hon. Friend's suggestion we shall consider whether they should be issued for a longer period with a view to reducing the work and keeping the fee to a minimum.

My hon. Friend asked about the level of fines. I took note of the point that he made. We are saying that £10,000 should be the maximum fine for someone who breaks the provisions of the Bill once it is enacted, by showing a sadistic film or a film involving an offence which, if it were actually perpetrated, would be a criminal offence. My hon. Friend said that it would be bizarre if that fine were greater than a fine that could be imposed if the offence were committed in the flesh. I understand that. If the film portrays something of gravity, almost certainly it will be triable on indictment. My hon. Friend will know that if it is triable on indictment the level of fine in almost every case—if not every case—is unlimited. The courts' discretion is untrammelled. The fine would not be limited to £10,000.

For a long time our law has provided that fines may not be imposed in a criminal case without having regard to the means of the offender to pay, for obvious and sensible reasons. Therefore, the point to be borne in mind is that the House believes that £10,000 is the correct level as the maximum fine for an offence under the Bill because we believe that a great deal of money is made out of those activities. The maximum fine should take account of that fact. I take note of what my hon. Friend has said, but I do not think that he need feel that there are grounds for the anxiety that he expressed, particularly bearing in mind that when the offence is triable on indictment the maximum fine is unlimited.

The hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) asked how we would deal with the levels of fines imposed individually by the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which deals with sex shop offences, and this Bill. We intend that the maximum fine shall be the same in each case. We shall take steps in another place to ensure that the maximum fine in the Bill dealing with sex shops is increased accordingly. I hope that I have dealt with the questions that have been asked.

The sympathetic consideration which has been given to this measure, and to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill both here and in another place, has confirmed that there is a good deal of concern about the activities of what has been called the "sex industry". In particular, there is concern about the lack of effective powers at present over sex shops and sex cinemas, and a widespread feeling that local authorities should have a greater measure of control over those premises.

One way, perhaps, of tackling this problem would be to attempt a fundamental reform of the laws governing the publication, sale and exhibition of pornography. This would be in the hope that agreement could be reached on what may or may not be sold or exhibited lawfully, and in what circumstances, and in the further hope that the necessary degree of control could be exercised simply by the need to comply with the general provisions of the criminal law. The assumption would be that if a shop was selling articles, or if a cinema was exhibiting a film or cassette, which complied with the general provisions of the criminal law, no further controls would be necessary.

I suggest, however, that this approach would present a number of formidable difficulties, which serve to confirm the wisdom of the rather different approach adopted in the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham and by the Government in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

It is clear, I think, from the very mixed reception given to the recommendations made by the Williams committee on obscenity and film censorship, that at present it would be a profoundly difficult task to reach any wide measure of agreement on the direction and detail of any fundamental reform of the law on obscenity.

Last June I endeavoured to say in the debate on the Williams committee report that the Government's view is that, in the absence of any early prospect of this measure of agreement being achieved, it is sensible to look to make progress in more limited areas where there may be a greater consensus about what needs to be done. Otherwise that might be described as the nibbling, rather than the overall, approach.

It is also, I think, clear that the general provisions of the criminal law—even if amended or reformed—may not always provide, in some respects, a sufficiently sensitive and flexible means of control. There are always liable to be materials or articles about the position of which under obscenity legislation is in doubt and where the authorities are dubious about the chances of a criminal prosecution, but the sale or exhibition of which is liable to cause offence in a particular locality. This point is already recognised to a considerable extent in the case of the cinema. Films are subject to the provisions of the Obscene Publications Acts, but this layer of control is overlaid by the much more direct and refined control provided by the cinema licensing system. As the House is aware, this system gives local authorities complete discretion over what may be shown in the cinemas in their area.

The very different arrangements governing the cinema attest to the widespread agreement—which the discussions on my hon. Friend's Bill have confirmed—that there is a need for particular caution when considering the impact of film. It is worth recalling at this point what the Williams committee had to say on this matter in chapter 12 of its report. It commented in paragraph 12.10: Film, in our view, is a uniquely powerful instrument: the close-up, fast cutting, the sophistication of modern make-up and special effects techniques, the heightening effect of sound effects and music, all combine on the large screen to produce an impact which no other medium can create.". Discussing whether there should continue to be a system of film censorship for adults, the committee remarked: What clinched the argument for some of us at least was the sight of some of the films with which the censorship presently interferes. We feel it necessary to say to many people who express liberal sentiments about the principle of adult freedom to choose that we were totally unprepared for the sadistic material that some film makers are prepared to produce. We are not here referring to the explicit portrayal of sexual activity or to anything which simply attracts charges of offensiveness. Films that exploit a taste for torture and sadistic violence do raise further, and disturbing questions. The committee added: It is not simply the extremity of the violence which concerns us: we found it extremely disturbing that highly explicit depictions of mutilation, savagery, menace and humiliation should be presented for the entertainment of an audience in a way that appeared to emphasise the pleasures of sadism. Indeed, some of the film sequences we saw seemed to have no purpose or justification other than to reinforce or sell the idea that it can be highly pleasurable to inflict injury, pain or humiliation (often in a sexual context) on others. The committee recommended that there should continue to be a film censorship system applying to children and adults, although, as hon. Members will be aware, it proposed a number of changes, including the replacement of the present British Board of Film Censors by a statutory film examining board and the abolition of the censorship powers of local authorities.

The committee also recommended—this goes to the heart of my hon. Friend's Bill—an extension of the film censorship system in order that it should apply to the bogus commercial "clubs". Before considering how that is achieved in my hon. Friend's Bill, it is worth reflecting that the Williams committee gave considerable thought to the matter. It has been, as is clearly shown in the passage that I referred to, taken by surprise by the scale and quality of the material included in the films. It is against the background of the present system of licensing that we need to consider the activities of the bogus commercial clubs.

The Williams committee believed that the abuses represented by those establishments are of two kinds. First, to evade film censorship requirements the clubs also evaded safety requirements. I do not believe that anyone is likely to dispute that it is wholly unsatisfactory that these premises should not have to comply with the same safety standards as other commercial cinemas. Secondly, the committee pointed out that there was no control at all over the nature of the films shown in these premises—apart from the provision of the Obscene Publications Acts—or over the audiences admitted to them. The committee commented in paragraph 12.35 of its report: Although many clubs show films which we would regard as acceptable for restricted viewing, this is not always the case. We were told that one sadistic sex film which we saw might have been shown in clubs in this country; our view was that the film would be turned down by any censorship system, however liberal, and we noted in our talks with the French film censor that the same and similar films are banned entirely in France despite the existence of a special category there for films which are pornographic or, indeed, incite to violenece. There are a number of film clubs which specialise in oriental martial arts films which can be extremely violent and which are often required to be cut by the British Board of Film Censors even before being given an 'X' certificate. The admission of children to these clubs means that uncensored films containing the kind of material which would not be passed even for adult veiwing in a public cinema, is being shown without any restriction at all on who may see it. We consider it desirable that the scope of the censorship system should be extended so as to impose some control on what at present is subject to none. There is a need both to draw the line at what is acceptable even for restricted audiences and to ensure that restrictions are properly observed. As my hon. Friend has made plain on a number of occasions, the reason that these premises have been able to evade the cinema licensing arrangements is that they take advantage of an exemption from licensing in section 5(1) of the Cinematograph Act 1952 for exhibitions to which the public are not admitted. That exemption, as the side note to the section indicates, was intended to benefit private non-commercial exhibitions of the kind held by many bona fide clubs and societies. Parliament plainly did not envisage that it would be exploited for commercial reasons.

The Cinematograph and Indecent Displays Bill, introduced by the Government of the day in the 1973–74 Session, proposed, among other matters, that that loophole should be blocked by qualifying the exemption so that exhibitions promoted for private gain would require a licence. The same recommendation was made by the Williams committee and has been adopted by my hon. Friend in clause 2 of his Bill. I am glad to note that in the proceedings to date that approach seems to have met with general approval. It is a more profitable way of proceeding than trying to distinguish between bogus and bona fide clubs. It is notoriously difficult to do the latter. Moreover, there must be many exhibitions given by churches, schools and other bodies which, although clearly non-commercial, are not run on club lines and which would be adversely affected if exemptions from the cinema requirements were confined strictly to clubs.

My hon. Friend's Bill is to be commended for the attention that it pays to the practical workings of the "private gain" test. Clause 2 will greatly assist the prosecution in proving private gain, particularly by ensuring that such ruses as inflated cloakroom charges will not offer a means of evasion. At the same time it ensures that non-commercial members' clubs—about which the hon. Member for Halifax expressed concern—will not be caught inadvertently by the private gain test simply because the proceeds of an exhibition benefit individuals as members of a club.

Having considered the way in which the Bill will bring the bogus clubs within the cinema licensing system, it is right to ask how the cinema licensing authorities will exercise their powers. The hon. Lady seemed concerned at the extent to which cinema licensing authorities appeared content to rely on the judgment of the British Board of Film Censors. She said on Second Reading that only about 70 cinema licensing authorities take a regular interest in the subject.

The Government made clear in last June's debate that they believe that there is a great deal to be said in favour of retaining local authority participation. But we would not go as far as the hon. Lady in suggesting that local authorities ought to be involved routinely in viewing films. It seems perfectly reasonable that a licensing authority should choose to rely on the British Board of Film Censors, although reserving its right to review a particular film if it thinks that there is cause to do so and, if necessary, to differ from the board's judgment. I do not believe that the fact that the great majority of cinema licensing authorities are largely content to rely on the board is a matter which is to be deplored.

My hon. Friend's Bill also makes some very useful reforms in the administrative arrangements governing the cinema licensing system. It is right, as the House accepted in discussing the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend, that the fire authority should be given a clear locus in those arrangements. It is understandable that the censorship aspects of the cinema licensing system should attract most attention, but it is often forgotten that its original purpose—even recently the Williams committee called it its "main purpose"—was to provide for the physical safety of those attending cinematograph exhibitions. It is interesting to note that the 1909 Act simply spoke of An Act to make better provision for securing safety at Cinematograph and other Exhibitions". Only in 1952 was it made clear that the licensing authority's powers included censorship.

I am sure that anyone who has had cause to consult the existing legislation will appreciate the case for consolidating it in one comprehensive measure on cinematograph exhibitions. We shall give serious consideration to the possibility of such a measure, and the steps that are being taken in my hon. Friend's Bill will pave the way for that. That in itself is a good reason for urging that the Bill be given a Third Reading and rapid passage to the statute book. I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that it is an extremely worthwhile measure which deserves the support of the House as a whole.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 5 (Friday sittings).