HC Deb 05 February 1985 vol 72 cc821-7
Mr. Trippier

I beg to move amendment No. 30, in page 8, line 24, at end insert— '"sound recording" means a sound recording which is either an original recording or a re-recording;'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 31.

Mr. Trippier

The amendments are designed to allay anxieties expressed in Committee that the omission of the word "re-recording" from schedule 1 could leave a loophole in deciding the eligibility of films as British. As some hon. Members will be aware, in film production many scenes are shot in film studios. In smaller studios it is usual for the sound for each scene to be recorded at the same time as the photographs are taken, such studios being designed and equipped specifically to allow that, but on large studio sets — for example, those used in James Bond films—it is impossible to take high quality sound recordings synchronously with the photography. A recording is made, but only as a guide for later use.

Once a film has been edited into near-final form, it is taken to a specialist sound studio where a new sound recording is constructed, using the original actors speaking while watching their lips move on a monitor screen, and with special effects engineers adding background noises —these are visions of scenes to come when the House of Commons is televised — such as storms, gunfire and footsteps. That process is known in the industry as re-recording, and is distinct from recordings taken when photography is done.

There have been some problems of definition in this area, in that although makers of British films have had to comply with the rules on labour and studio use, re-recording sound was not mentioned in the rules, and therefore a film producer could undertake re-recording in a foreign sound studio with foreign labour and with no adverse effect on the film's eligibility as British.

In Committee the view was expressed that the word "re-recording" should be included in the Bill to make it clear that that loophole would be plugged. I said then that the reference in the schedule, to recording sound covered re-recording, but that I was content for it to be made clear, and the Bill was amended accordingly. However, the location of that amendment is defective, because it relates only to a specific part of the schedule—paragraph 1(2)—not to the entire schedule. Therefore, we have tabled an amendment which we believe not only meets the concern expressed by hon. Members in Committee, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton), but further improves schedule 1. I invite hon. Members to accept the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 31, in page 8, line 32, leave out `(which shall be deemed to include re-recordings)'. — [Mr. Trippier.]

8.52 pm
Mr. Norman Lamont

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It is a sad reflection that in the brief period of six months since the White Paper was published at least 18 cinemas, with a total of 36 screens, will have closed. An important part of the Bill's provisions was to end the Eady levy as soon as possible, because the health of the cinema industry is vital to the health of the film production industry.

The Bill will lift from the distribution and exhibition sectors a raft of controls and regulations which are now out of date. It is unlikely that any steps open to the Government could reverse the trend overnight and bring back the enormous cinema audiences of the 1950s, but in abolishing registration, licensing and the quota the Bill will at least remove an unwanted and useless financial and administrative burden.

More positively, the Government support the film industry's initiative in the forthcoming British Film Year. This year is intended not as an exercise in nostalgia but as a celebration of the modern British film industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) reminded us that, as part of British Film Year, several companies will modernise and invest some of their cinemas. Such steps are vital if we are to get people back to the cinema.

Another measure that is extremely important in relation to the cinema industry, and thus to the film industry, has not featured in our debate today, but I believe that the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) recognises as important the Government's plans to carry out an experiment to investigate the effects of relaxing the barring arrangements which many independent cinemas claim deprive them of fair access to profitable films. As I said earlier, the hon. Gentleman might ask, why have we not gone further and made an order covering the entire country? We must take into account the precarious position of the cinema industry, and I hope he agrees that an experiment is the sensible way forward. I agree entirely with the point that he made in Committee that competition in the cinema is important. Had there been greater competition 15 or 20 years ago, the industry might not have so many problems today. I shall watch the outcome of the experiment with great interest.

The Eady mechanism used to make a substantial contribution to film production, but those days are long gone. The amounts going to British film makers fell from £4.6 million to £2.7 million in 1982–83, and were almost certainly less in 1983–84. In short, as a general production support, the Eady levy has shrunk into minor significance. That does not mean that the pool of available funds for production in Britain has shrunk in the same way. New names have appeared. Channel 4, with its programme of financing films intended for cinema and television showings, now invests £8 million a year in film production. The video sector, which for much of its history was the beneficiary of decades of film making, is beginning to face the need to invest in new products.

In 1984, 53 theatrical features were produced in the United Kingdom or made by British crews … This is 11 films more than in 1983 and relects the continuing buoyant state of the United Kingdom film industry. Those are not my words; they come from "Screen International", one of the leading trade journals. The article, which appeared just before Christmas, continues: This film making activity represents production investments of over £200 million compared to the £180 million in 1983. To those who say that those achievements were due to capital allowances or to the effect of the dollar exchange rate, I would pray in aid some of the recent attempts to raise finance for production by Goldcrest and Thorn-EMI. It has been demonstrated clearly that money can be raised in the market for British films. Nevertheless, during today's debate there have been calls for injections of further financial aid to the film industry, either of taxpayers' money or by way of a levy, which is simply a tax by another name. Of course, we recognise that there is an area of film making which is as unlikely to be self-supporting as are ballet, opera, or any of the activities that contribute to the cultural life of Britain. That is why my noble Friend the Minister for the Arts supports film production through the British Film Institute.

It is against that background—the support that we are giving to the commercial sector and the neo-commercial sector through the new consortium that we are supporting and the support that is given by my noble Friend the Minister for Arts — that on the one hand we have rejected the demands of those who advocate general support for the production industry and on the other have considered the needs of those activities which have until now been funded by the Eady levy. The first of these was the British Film Institute production board. Here the Government have enforced the recommendation of the Cinematograph Films Council, but in this final year of the levy the BFI should receive out of the levy a discretionary payment equivalent to three times its expectation based on the recent past. This will give a breathing space to the BFI to find an alternative source to make up for the former Eady contribution. Its main funding will, of course, continue to come from my noble Friend.

The second activity for which discretionary payments from the Eady levy have been made is the National Film and Television School, to which the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) referred earlier. I gave him an assurance on the specific question that he put to me. I know, of course, that the school has reservations about the adequacy of its future funding. I am considering its position in the light of a meeting that I had the other day with the school's director. As I explained in reply to the earlier amendment, I believe that the £600,000 that has been made available will give it a degree of security.

Thirdly, and most important, the Government have heeded the arguments of those who pressed the case of the National Film Finance Corporation. Here, it is said, we are talking about the risky end of the commercial sector, the young and untried talent making the low and modest budget feature films. It is a measure of the Government's recognition of the NFFC's unique importance that we have been extremely careful to find a way of securing its functions when its means of support vanish with the demise of the Eady levy. I believe that the arrangements that we are making with its successor, the British Screen Finance Consortium, offer an excellent prospect of carrying on the traditions of the NFFC. That is what the Government tried to enshrine in the heads of agreement that we placed before the Committee. We tried to build in safeguards to ensure that Government funding will be used in conjunction with the private sector to support new talent, and to encourage the development of young producers in the country. I believe that all the partners in the new consortium are dedicated to that same purpose.

The Bill does not, of course, solve all the problems that confront the film industry, but sweeping away the controls and enabling the cinemas to be realeased from the Eady levy is, I think everybody will agree, urgently needed. At the same time, the transition to the new consortium will provide a means of concentrating Government assistance to the commercial film industry where it is needed. I believe that that new body, based on the memorandum that we have examined today, will carry on those traditions and contribute to the unique film industry that we have in this country and which we very much want to maintain.

9.2 pm

Mr. Gould

We stand on the threshold of British Film Year, as the Minister said. British Film Year is meant to be a celebration of British film, but I believe that the Bill means that those celebrations must be muted and that the prospects for the industry are worse than they need have been.

The Bill is a missed opportunity. I am afraid that its deficiencies have been exacerbated by the decision taken earlier to remove the levy on television companies. The abolition of the Eady levy, as the Minister rightly says, was the agreed starting point for the Bill. I think that nobody disputes that the Eady levy has had its day. We are sad, however, because the abolition of the levy could have been used as an opportunity to put the industry on a new long-term and sound footing.

I believe that instead the Government have used that point as a pretext for dismantling, largely on ideological grounds, the structures of financial and institutional support which have so far kept the British film industry alive and kicking. The difficulty is that the risks which now stand in the way as a result of the Bill may well prove to be fatal. I trust that that will not be so. If the industry survives those risks and we still have a British film industry, it may be for a returning Labour Government to remove the risks and create the climate in which the industry can survive and prosper.

9.5 pm

Mr. Gorst

I have asked myself what sort of Bill we have been spawning, and I am sorry to have to say that I believe that it is now devoid of any meaningful financial provision for films, having suffered a debilitating hysterectomy earlier this afternoon. It leaves the future of the industry to a mixture of optimistic and pious predictions by my hon. Friend the Minister.

The original parents of the measure have long since divorced themselves from the responsibility of the upbringing of their progeny, and the new foster parents — in the shape of my hon. Friend — have proved well-meaning and most courteous in replying to all our inquiries. However, in the purely political sense, I have to say that I believe that they have shown themselves to be impotent to make adequate provision for their recently acquired charge, the British film industry.

Therefore, I cannot welcome the Bill, now in its, so to speak., polished form, with anything more enthusiastic than a whimper and expressions of regret and doubt. I believe that the Government should ponder upon the implications of their attitude. The film industry in this country is not a weakling art form appealing to an impecunious elite; it has cultural aspects that justify national support, partly because it enhances the understanding of our way of life overseas and partly because it communicates in a manner and with a force that can be not only breathtaking and entertaining but economically profitable.

Throughout the centuries, various geniuses of music, painting, opera and ballet have come to expect—and the nation that has housed them has accepted the responsibility—the nation to act as a patron of those arts. There is no substitute in the commercial world for the patronage of the state in those areas. The film industry blends commerce, communication and culture and is, in my view, entitled to expect similar treatment.

It seems that with the Bill the Government are abandoning the industry to the vagaries and uncertainties of an artificially fettered market. Indeed, they are also denying it fair access to the sustenance of multi-million audiences. That is what the Government seem to be doing through their policies enshrined in the Bill.

However, I conclude by hoping profoundly that every negative word that I have uttered, every critical thought that I have spoken, and every doubtful prediction that I have postulated will be disproved by events and will be totally untrue. I hope that I shall be wrong and that the optimistic Ministers who people the Government Front Bench will be resoundingly vindicated by the great benefit that their actions will have bestowed upon a valuable and talented British film industry.

9.9 pm

Mr. Ashdown

To use the words used by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), this is another in the catalogue of the Government's lost opportunities. The Government are capable of correctly assessing and analysing some of the ills at the heart of Britain, but then come up with an answer that is so ideologically dominated that it is inappropriate. The Minister may shake his head, but he has heard the same message as effectively from Conservative Benches as he has from Opposition Benches. Even if he takes no account of what we say, perhaps he will take account of his hon. Friends, who have been saying the same thing consistently.

Mr. Norman Lamont

The only thing at which I was shaking my head, which I have done consistently and I hope for the last time, was the latter point. We may have got this right or wrong, but we have not been motivated by ideology. We had to deal with the Eady levy, and when the Eady levy ended we had to reconstruct the NFFC. Our motive is dominated by responding to this situation.

Mr. Ashdown

I hear what the Minister says, and, having debated with him before, I will take it at face value. However, that is the only logical conclusion that some of us, and perhaps some Conservative Members, can come to when we regard the opportunities open to the Government and the extraordinarily illogical way that they have gone about them. As I have not found any logic in the Government's system, I can only come to the conclusion that there must be other driving forces. Perhaps the Minister will forgive me for such a mean thought, which persists in my breast.

The Minister is right to assess that the support structure for the industry is in need of reform, and he is right to say that the Eady levy needs to be replaced by a new mechanism. However, the Government's chosen mechanism will not lay down the basis for a new, long-term support structure within which the industry can grow, but will do something different. The Government have made funding of the industry the prey of a market place in which there are only two buyers—the television companies. In the end, whatever they may be doing now, they are bound to operate, whether formally or informally, in a way that will diminish the fair price that they pay for the goods that the film industry has to offer.

The Minister accepted that this is an imperfect market place and that the job of the market place is to determine demand and so allow things to develop in accordance with demand. However, he has turned down a mechanism that would have compensated, and would have provided a levy to the film industry based on the demands of the public. I thought that that was what the Government were all about.

Unhappily, the Bill cannot even be taken in isolation. It is the third in a series of body blows administered to the industry. In 1983 came the abolition of exhibitors' quotas, then last year the end of tax allowances, and now a Bill that takes away an albeit inadequate system of support and replaces it with nothing effective.

It is a supreme irony, as other hon. Members have said, that in British Film Year the Government have laid down the basis for a bleak and uncertain future for the industry. The industry depends on investment and on people taking risks, and people putting money on uncertain things. The kind of climate generated by these three measures will diminish the industry and weaken it, if not destroy certain sections of it.

This is a bad Bill and my party will be voting against it tonight.

9.12 pm
Mr. Brinton

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) was not with us in Committee, and I was reflecting as he spoke that one of the good things about the discussions on the Bill was the constructive and friendly approach of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, who have listened to the arguments, albeit while disagreeing.

I have my reservations about how far the Bill has gone. I have spent a great deal of the time that I have been contributing in a small way to these debates trying to make it plain that there is a basic difference between film made for the cinema and film made for television. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) referred somewhat hesitantly to a Bill that might be polished — I suggest that it has room for considerably more polishing in the other place. One of the big problems faced by the Bill and the Government is that over the years there has been a slow getting together of the cinema film and the television film, but the two have not yet married up. Therefore, in a sense, the Bill is reflecting something that is changing all the time and will not remain constant for long enough to be of value.

There is no doubt in my mind that the most useful thing that we could get is what we have not so far had from my hon. Friend. The Government have had to introduce certain reforms because the Eady levy was out of date and not doing its job. They have chosen the path set for them by the television lobby and have not supported the feature film. That is a different animal. One of our small achievements during the course of the Bill has been to get the whole of the film industry united around one statement: that the polishing will continue elsewhere.

9.15 pm
Mr. Gale

There will be three rousing cheers tonight in the Carlton cinema, Westgate-on-Sea, and in many small cinemas around the country about the abolition of the Eady levy. The industry needed that little shot in the arm. On their behalf, I thank the Government for it and I welcome it.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton) that the Ministers have listened patiently to the arguments and have put a great deal of hard work into the Bill. As a result, it leaves this House a better Bill. Earlier this afternoon we may have lost a skirmish. However, there will be an opportunity in another place to look again at the Bill. I know that my hon. Friends will listen to the arguments and will look again at the Bill. The Government have reaffirmed their support for a British film industry making good British films that will be shown in British cinemas and on British television. Therefore, warts and all, I welcome the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.