HC Deb 12 April 1994 vol 241 cc129-41

'-(1) In subsection (2) of section 7 of the Video Recordings Act 1984 ("the 1984 Act") (Classification certificates), at the end, there shall be inserted the following words—

"; Or

(d) a statement that, either because it presents an inappropriate model for children, or because it is likely to cause psychological harm to a child, no video recording containing that work is to be supplied for private use, or viewed in any place to which children under the age of 18 are admitted.

(2) After section 12 of the 1984 Act there shall be inserted the following section— 12A. Where a classification certificate issued in respect of a video work states that no video recording containing that work is to be supplied for private use, or viewed in any place to which children under the age of 18 are admitted, a person who

  1. (a) supplies a video recording containing the work for private use,
  2. (b) offers to do so, or
  3. (c) permits the video work to be viewed in a place to which children under the age of 18 are admitted
is guilty of an offence, unless the supply or viewing is made for the purpose of arrangements made by the designated authority.".'.—[Mr. Alton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss also new clause 107—Definition of an obscene article (computer pornography)'.In section 1(2) of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 (definition of an article) there shall be added at the end after the word "pictures" the words "or any items which store data for immediate or future retrieval".'.

Mr. Alton

The House will be relieved to know that, instead of the protracted debate that many had expected would take place this evening, it may be possible to curtail both the debate and the need to make the kinds of arguments that people had anticipated would be made in the House this evening. That will be possible not least because the Home Secretary has been very obliging to those who have approached him and spoken to him directly about these issues, both today and in the weeks preceding the debate. He has been open to the arguments which have been put before the House by me and by many other colleagues.

I couple with those remarks my thanks to the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), the official Opposition spokesman on home affairs, who has also intervened in order to try to make progress on the issue of video violence which is covered in my new clause.

I will briefly paint the background to the issue in order to put the debate in context. More than a year ago, I asked the House whether it would support an early-day motion, which I tabled, to establish a royal commission to look into the effects on the community of levels of violence both on television and on video. More than 100 Members from both sides of the House supported that call.

I still believe that there should be a major long-term study to examine the links between real-life violence and that which is transmitted by the media. Since that early-day motion, a number of cases have come before the courts which have involved the use of videos and videos have been cited in the course of those court cases. I think particularly of the Suzanne Capper case in Manchester, where a young woman was tortured and brutally murdered while the sound tape of the movie "Child's Play 3" was transmitted to her. Quite recently, in a case in Cardiff the video "Deuce" was cited as an influence on the young people who were involved in a terrible murder.

Therefore, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill provides an opportunity for the House to address this issue and to consider action which it might be appropriate to take. I say at the outset that I am especially grateful to hon. Members from both sides of the House for their support. More than 220 right hon. and hon. Members have signed the new clause. They are drawn from all parts of the political spectrum and from all political parties.

The co-sponsors of the new clause—the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), the hon. Members for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short), for Worsley (Mr. Lewis), for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne)—have been especially helpful in formulating the new clause and ensuring that it has enjoyed the support of many people in many parts of the House of Commons.

In addition, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Professional Association of Teachers have given their support to the new clause. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House have been instrumental in ensuring the support of those two agencies, for which I am grateful.

My new clause has three aims: first, to open the debate; secondly, to demonstrate widespread concern; and, thirdly, to stimulate change. I think that in all those respects it has achieved its purpose.

I refer the House briefly to the report that was published only a few days ago over the Easter recess by Professor Elizabeth Newsom and her colleagues—some 25 psychiatrists, psychologists and paediatricians who are some of the most distinguished and eminent people in their field. Suffice it to say—many hon. Members will have seen the report—that what they have said represents a major change from the previously accepted orthodoxies.

The report states: Many of us hold our liberal ideas of freedom of expression dear, but now begin to feel that we were naive in our failure to predict the extent of damaging material and its all too free availability to children. Most of us would prefer to rely on the discretion and responsibility of parents, both in controlling their children's viewing and in giving children clear models of their own distress in witnessing sadistic brutality; however it is unhappily evident that many children cannot rely on their parents in this respect. By restricting such material from home viewing, society must take on a necessary responsibility in protecting children from this as from other forms of child abuse. Those are the words of the eminent and distinguished psychologists to whom I think that we should pay enormous attention.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

That brave volte face on the part of so many distinguished scientists was supplemented by a call that I had today from the leading child psychiatrist in my city, who said that she sees the malign effect of that diet of violence every day in the children whom she interviews and totally supports the hon. Gentleman's proposal.

Mr. Alton

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. That is in line with the evidence given last September to the House of Lords Broadcasting Group, when Professors Sims and Gray, professors of psychiatry and paediatrics respectively, pointed to a vast world literature, more than 1,000 papers, linking heavy exposure to media violence with subsequent aggressive behaviour". I appreciate that there are varying views about that. I do not claim that there is a proven demonstrable link. Indeed, it is extremely hard to prove such a link. But most of us with any common sense recognise that video and television images are likely to have an effect on those who see them, which is why I commend to the Home Secretary the idea of a long-term research project to look at those questions. It should involve those leading psychiatrists and the eminently distinguished people who signed that paper.

I also commend the research of Dr. Susan Bailey, the forensic scientist who works for the Home Secretary. She looked at 40 juvenile offenders who committed some of the worst and most violent crimes ever committed in the UK. She says that, in 25 per cent. of those cases, the youngsters had been exposed to high levels of gratuitous violence. A recent poll showed that more than one in 10 adolescents feel violent having watched a violent film.

In addition, public opinion has been changing. Last Sunday's Observer newspaper published a poll showing that 70 per cent. of people want tougher regulations to deal with violent video and television material. I was not surprised, therefore, that when my new clause became public knowledge, petitions bearing more than 100,000 signatures arrived in support of the terms of the new clause and I presented them in the House just before the Easter recess. The petitions were signed by many ordinary parents who know that it is not enough simply to leave the matter to parents. However good a parent may be, children go into other people's homes where they are exposed to material which their parents would not wish them to see.

What control can parents have, especially when, as the Consumers Association points out, many children who are under age gain access to those videos? The Consumers Association published a report in Which? magazine saying that one in 10 of the children receiving videos had no membership card and were not entitled to the videos that they were obtaining. A woman to whom I was talking only yesterday told me that a six-year-old child was able to take the family's membership card to a local video shop and obtain an 18-rated video. Hon. Members on both sides of the House know as. well as I do that that is a fact of life in our country today.

Home Office figures show that 1.1 million children watch television for one and a half hours after watershed. That, too, is an issue to which the House must return.

It is not entirely surprising that there has been some scaremongering about the new clause, as huge vested interests are involved. Last year alone, some £650 million was generated by 18 and 15-rated videos. It would be surprising, therefore, if some of those who might be affected did not react. It is worth calling in aid yesterday's leader in The Times, which said: This amendment does not advocate a mindless ban on even the most benign horseplay. It seeks to extend the powers of the British Board of Film Classification to judge, in an intelligent and conscientious way, each individual film on its own merits and to decide which of them should be put definitively beyond the reach of children. That is what the new clause seeks to do by introducing new categories of "not suitable for home entertainment" based on whether the model may be inappropriate for children or may cause them psychological damage. The proposal is perfectly workable and enforceable, according to much respected opinion and legal opinion. Again, I can see there is an alternative view. The House of Commons and the Home Secretary have to come up with something that is workable and that satisfies all sides of the argument. I fully appreciate that. I believe that my new clause would catch about 3 per cent.—perhaps 3 or 4 per cent.—of the ultra-violent videos. The idea that it sets out to catch "Schindler's List" or, dare I say it, "Toad of Toad Hall" or "Tom and Jerry" —I even heard "Bambi" mentioned—is so absurd as to be beyond belief. No one in the House of Commons seriously believes that that is the intention of a single signatory of the new clause. If the British Board of Film Classification cannot tell the difference between "Bambi" or "Toad of Toad Hall" or "Schindler's List" and something like "Child's Play 3", it is time that we got a new British Board of Film Classification.

For the industry to rely on gratuitous violence or degrading material to justify its existence is a disgrace. The presence in our society of a depraved video culture is a subject to which we in the House of Commons should return. I hope that the Select Committee on Home Affairs will have a chance to look at the subject in detail.

10.30 pm

I was affected by something that the hon. and learned Member for Burton said to the House some months ago. He told us that in the United States of America, before a child reaches the age of five, he or she will have seen about 20,000 homicides. Do we want that disease in this country, too? We must draw a line between censorship, to which all of us feel a great aversion in principle, and the protection of children. With 46,000 children in this country on child protection registers, through fear of physical or sexual abuse, all of us must think deeply about how we can cope with gratuitous violence, penetrating and saturating our homes and living rooms day in, day out. Our first obligation must always be to those children.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I am anxious to nail the argument of those who say that such material is innocuous and does not cause harm. If that were so, what is the justification for the amount that we spend on video material to train our military, our tank and air crews, and those in industry and education? Why do we waste so much money on that if it does not have an impact on the recipients?

Mr. Alton

In addition, why does the advertising industry spend £1.6 billion trying to sell us its wares if such material does not have an effect on anybody? It seems an extraordinary waste of money if that is the case. The hon. Gentleman is right, which is why we must take such issues very seriously.

I first gave my new clause to the Home Secretary when the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) and I went to see him. He was courteous when he met us to discuss the issue about three months ago. Before that, my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and I met the Home Secretary last year, when I also raised some of the issues. I know that the Home Secretary has tried to respond at every stage. The new clause has also been with the industry for that period, so there has been an opportunity to discuss it at length and for people to come forward with alternatives.

My new clause has widespread support throughout the House, including that of 220 right hon. and hon. Members, among them a clutch of former Ministers. I have also had the helpful support of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who wrote a superb article in this morning's edition of The Daily Telegraph. He advanced a powerful argument revealing the differences between censorship and protection. The effect has been to show the House of Commons at its best. It has demonstrated how people can come together on an issue that has nothing to do with party politics and can be resolved in a common-sense and adult way.

I am grateful that the Home Secretary has been able this afternoon to announce on television—no doubt he will say more to the House in due course—measures that will lead to tighter enforcement. I strongly welcome his moves to introduce penalties that will result in increased fines and imprisonment for those who sell such videos to children who go into shops where they should not be given access to such violent material.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's arguments. Did he see the report today about the viewing habits of known offenders compared with the viewing habits of children of the same age who had not offended? Did the hon. Gentleman notice that viewing patterns tend to revolve around programmes such as "The Bill" and soap operas? The report's most significant point was that offenders are in large numbers readers of The Sun.

Mr. Alton

I will resist the temptation to be drawn into a wider debate about the quality of our newspapers, but I accept the hon. Lady's point that many other factors are at work in society. People misrepresent my position when they suggest that I naively believe that the only influencing factor in the development of young people is exposure to video violence. In the sick culture that exists in so many parts of urban society, as the hon. Lady knows, youngsters have so little of value or quality to fill their lives that violent videos, drugs and pornography become substitutes. Surely we can do better for our young people. We owe them an obligation to try.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

In 1982, I introduced a ten-minute Bill that eventually became the Video Recordings Act 1984. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that a way forward for the Home Secretary would be to draw to the attention of all magistrates the fact that, under the 1984 Act, they can impose a fine of up to £20,000 for a first offence of renting or selling a video that is not classified for the age group of the person to whom the video is rented or sold? Would it help to inform magistrates that that is already the law?

Mr. Alton

That sounds like a very constructive suggestion. I will leave Home Secretary to elaborate on penalties and fines.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

The hon. Gentleman referred to young people and education and to the Professional Association of Teachers, in which I declare an interest. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the association conducted a survey earlier this year, the results of which will be published soon? It found that a significant number of teachers believe that current safeguards designed to protect children from exposure to adult entertainment are not working. In particular, teachers believe—among other things—that the current system of film classification is not tough enough, with some material classified with an age rating too low for its content. Is not that survey likely to support the hon. Gentleman's arguments?

Mr. Alton

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) has given significant support during the progress of the Bill. I am grateful to him and to the Professional Association of Teachers, whose report I have read. It refers also to behavioural problems in the classroom caused by youngsters watching television often as late as midnight and being exposed regularly to violent video material. We should listen to our teachers. That may be another factor in the discipline problems that confront them in our schools.

Before entering the House, for six years I worked with children with special needs. I accept that not every child will become a psychopath or commit violent crimes as a result of exposure to such material. However, if there is no parental support and things are taken out of context, we should not be surprised that such material may tip over the edge a child who is anyway predisposed to committing a violent crime.

The second point made by the Home Secretary in his statement on television this afternoon was the need for greater rigour by the British Board of Film Classification, which I strongly welcome. But neither measure would have been enough unless the Home Secretary had been prepared to go the extra mile of introducing legislative safeguards, which he has agreed to do.

I welcome his support and his willingness to introduce an amendment when the Bill goes to the other place which will incorporate the two criteria mentioned in my new clause, of material that presents an inappropriate model for children and is likely to cause psychological harm to a child", among those that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will draw up for the British Board of Film Classification to examine when it judges the suitability of films for general circulation in the future. I believe that that represents significant progress. It shows the House of Commons and Parliament at its best. It shows us listening to public opinion. It shows the Government listening to Opposition colleagues and particularly to Back-Bench opinion in Parliament.

The Home Secretary also said that he will involve those who have taken part in the debate in the drafting of the amendment that will be introduced in the other place. That, again, is the sort of guarantee that I would have been looking for. Therefore, in that spirit, I am happy to say to the Home Secretary that it will not be my intention to press my new clause to a Division. If he is able to give the assurances which I understand he is—from what he has been saying publicly today and in the meetings to which I have alluded—there should be no reason for the House to divide. I hope that we will be able to make progress together on this important question.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) has provided us this evening with an opportunity to consider an extremely important issue —the concern that is widely felt about the availability of unacceptable videos. I hope that no one will be in any doubt that the Government share those concerns and have acted to translate them into action. Indeed, since we came to office, the legal position governing the availability of videos has been transformed. In 1984, controls over the availability of videos were introduced in the Video Recordings Act 1984, a private Member's measure sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) to whom we all owe a great debt of gratitude. I pay tribute, too, to the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell), whose ten-minute Bill was referred to earlier.

Much of the argument that has taken place outside the House on the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman's new clause has been irrelevant to the questions that we have to decide. Reams of newsprint have been devoted to the question whether there is any evidence that human behaviour can be influenced by what people see on videos. For my part, I have never been in any doubt that it can. It seems to me self-evident that, just as human behaviour can be influenced for the good by what is seen in the theatre, on film or video, so it can be influenced for the bad. Much argument is centred around whether it is appropriate to have a regime of censorship in this area. We already have censorship. Indeed, we already have a system of control that is the most rigorous in Europe and, probably, in the western world.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I take just a minute or two to explain exactly how the present system works. All video works, except those falling into a few exempted categories, must be submitted for classification to the British Board of Film Classification before they can be supplied on a commercial basis.

The board may decline to issue a certificate altogether —and sometimes does—or require cuts. If a work is classified, it is placed in one of a number of categories. It might be one of unrestricted supply, or it might be supplied only to persons over a certain age—15 and 18—or supplied only through licensed sex shops. It is an offence under the Video Recordings Act to supply, or possess for supply, an unclassified work, with a maximum fine of £20,000, or to supply a work to someone below the relevant age, where the maximum fine is £5,000.

The board is formally required as a condition of designation not to classify any work that would be unlawful—for example, obscene—and to pay special regard to the fact that the works will be viewed in the home without the access control that exists in the cinema. That latter point is particularly relevant in the present context, because it means that, if the board really is persuaded that a work is unsuitable for viewing in the home, it can, and does, refuse it a certificate.

We have one of the most rigorous control systems in the western world. But it is quite clear from the extensive support that the new clause has attracted that many think that it needs to be strengthened further. I recognise and share that concern.

Mr. Beith

Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Howard

I shall complete this part of my remarks.

There are a number of different ways of tackling the problem.

I have made it clear from the outset that, while I understand the sentiments that underlie the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill and which have motivated those who have expressed support for it, I cannot accept the new clause itself. The effect of the new clause, whatever the hon. Gentleman might have intended, would be to ban the supply to adults of all videos that are unsuitable for viewing by children. That would, in my view, go much too far and would be deeply unpopular with our constituents once they understood its scope. 10.45 pm

Of course I want to tackle what we all agree is a very worrying problem. I have therefore had extensive discussions with the people most closely involved in the issues and would like to propose to the House an alternative approach which in my view will meet the concern that has been expressed.

That approach has three elements. First, it relies on more rigorous enforcement of controls under the Video Recordings Act 1984. The Bill already contains provisions that will make it easier to investigate widespread offences. That is achieved through clause 77, which enables local authority trading standards officers to investigate offences under the Video Recordings Act which are part of a chain of supply in their area but which are committed outside their area. That will enable them to investigate an entire chain of supply and will significantly improve the enforcement of the Act.

The Bill also expands the definition of video work and video recording to include moving images which are electronically stored on a recording device other than a magnetic tape or disk. That will ensure that the law keeps pace, as it must do, with developing technology such as computer pornography.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

In view of the great assurance that the Home Secretary has given, does it not cause him great concern that, 10 days ago, the EC Commission sent an official notification to the Secretary of State for National Heritage that it plans to challenge in the European Court the Government's policy of national licensing for the use of pornographic video films sent by satellite television, which enabled the Government to stop the import of filthy videos? Does not the Home Secretary think it very strange and unfortunate that the Government have not announced the fact that 10 days ago they received official notification of prosecution in the European Court?

Mr. Howard

The considerations that apply to the problem to which my hon. Friend refers are not the same as those which would apply to video recordings. I do not think that he need be concerned that the controls that I am announcing will fall foul of any European legislation.

The recent debate has revealed a widespread perception that the provisions that I have just identified are by themselves not enough. I want to make absolutely sure that dealers who flout the provisions by supplying videos to underage children, or by supplying videos which have not been classified at all, face stringent penalties. They should be under no illusion that they can get away with such behaviour merely for the price of a fine which they might well regard as just another business expense.

I therefore propose to provide a penalty of imprisonment to deal with the worst cases. Those who supply videos in breach of an age classification will face the possibility of up to six months in prison, while those who supply unclassified works will be liable to a maximum sentence of two years' imprisonment as well as an unlimited fine. That is the first element of my approach.

The second element involves the British Board of Film Classification with which I have been discussing these issues for some time. I know that the board already takes care in its task of classifying videos and that it is especially conscious of the need to maintain public confidence in its operations. It recognises that it has a responsibility to respond to public concerns and that public attitudes to the depiction of violence are changing. Consequently, it accepts the need for its classification decisions to reflect those changing attitudes and it proposes to stiffen the standards that it applies when classifying works. It will mean that some works which are at present placed in the 15 category will be placed in the 18 category and others will be refused a certificate altogether. In other cases, works will be classified only on condition that significant cuts are made.

The third element of my strategy will underpin and help to deliver the tougher standards from the BBFC. I propose that the Video Recordings Act should be amended to require the BBFC to take into account certain factors when it decides whether to classify a video and, if so, in what category to put it. We will obviously need to consider carefully what those factors should be, but they would include—for example, whether a work may cause psychological harm to a child and whether it portrays techniques that it would be undesirable for a child to imitate.

Mr. Gareth Wardell

Will the Home Secretary clarify one point? Would the legislation be retrospective so that existing videos which have received a BBFC classification, let us say for the age of 15, would be changed if the BBFC is required to uprate them to an 18 category? How will he deal retrospectively with videos that are already in existence and have already been classified?

Mr. Howard

I doubt that it is possible to deal with that problem. There are some 24,000 separate works in existence in the country and, of course, each work can be copied any number of times. I have given some thought to the question that the hon. Gentleman has raised. It is a serious question, but I see no practical way in which his concern could be met.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)


Mr. Alton


Mr. Howard

I shall give way first to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Alton

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He will be well aware that videos such as "Child's Play III" have been very much at the heart of the debate. Therefore, will he give some consideration to specific videos where a referral or even a judicial review to the BBFC takes place, perhaps through Members of Parliament or some other agency that he may care to name, so that there is some way by which the public are able to draw to his attention specific videos which are already in circulation without having to go throughout the entire library—a point that I well understand?

Mr. Howard

I shall certainly consider very carefully the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I appreciate his recognition of the practical difficulties to which I referred earlier and I am certainly prepared to consider his point.

Mr. Cash

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give us an assurance that, in dealing with the question through the board of censors, we will be guaranteed that it will not merely have a wider discretion, but that there will be an obligation imposed on it with strict criteria to ensure that the mischief that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr, Alton) has brought to the attention of nation will be dealt with properly? There are many people who have very little faith in the manner in which the discretion is currently being exercised by the board.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend will appreciate that the whole purpose of the package of measures which I am putting forward is that a more rigorous approach be taken. If he is patient for a moment or two, he will see how that package will achieve the objective which he and I share.

I have mentioned some of the criteria which we intend to designate. Of course, we shall want to consider carefully the criteria which will be set out on the face of the Act, but our aim is that the legislative framework governing the BBFC's discharge of its responsibilities should reflect the spirit of the criteria set out in the new clause introduced by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill. I shall certainly consult him and others with an interest before bringing forward a suitable amendment in another place.

Mr. Colvin


Mr. Howard

May I finish the point, as it deals with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash)?

The presence of the statutory criteria will reinforce the more rigorous approach by the board which it has agreed to take. The criteria will also make it easier for the decisions of the board to be made the subject of judicial review. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford will appreciate the significance of that point.

I believe that those three measures taken together constitute a substantial strengthening of the existing arrangements. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mossley Hill for suggesting that the measures go a long way towards meeting his concerns. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and others, including the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), for their helpful and constructive approach to the question. It has enabled us to produce what I believe is a real improvement on the existing position and one which I hope will be welcomed by the House and by all those responsible, concerned members of the public who have made their views known to us.

Before I finish my speech I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin).

Mr. Colvin

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way before concluding his speech. He will recall that during the passage of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, which I had something to do with, a problem arose concerning proper powers for the police to enforce its proposed provisions. My right hon. and learned Friend has not so far said anything about powers of enforcement, and he is aware that, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, there are limitations on police powers of entry and search. Will he undertake to bear in mind the difficulties of enforcement when he considers the amendments that he proposes will be tabled in the other place? Without proper powers of enforcement, whatever is proposed in the legislation could prove ineffective.

Mr. Howard

I entirely accept my hon. Friend's argument about the importance of enforcement. He will appreciate that some of the measures already in the Bill will help in that respect. In so far as they are not adequate, of course I undertake to reflect further on what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Beith

Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Howard

Yes, finally, and then I must finish.

Mr. Beith

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has twice said that we have the most rigorous framework in Europe, or even in the western world. That may be true of the framework, but not of the classification. I hope that he will bear in mind the fact, which I hope will also be clear in the mind of the British Board of Film Classification, that it is fairly common, for example, for violent films to receive a higher age classification in Sweden than in Britain. Whether we have an effective framework will depend on the board's decisions, and the extent to which the procedures that the Home Secretary has described will influence its members.

Mr. Howard

I take the right hon. Gentleman's point, but he will understand that the purpose of the measures is to adopt a more rigorous approach, and I am confident that they will achieve that end.

The details of my proposal will of course be subject to full debate when the relevant provision returns to the House from another place. I therefore hope that, on the basis that I have outlined, the hon. Member for Mossley Hill will feel able to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

I shall be very brief, because in any event we shall have a full debate on the matter when the Lords amendment returns to the House of Commons. I am pleased that we now have the basis for a sensible way forward, and that the Home Secretary has undertaken to consult us on the nature of the amendment to be tabled in the other place.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and to all the other hon. Members, including many of my hon. Friends, who have consistently raised the issue over time, and helped to bring the amendment forward. They did that not only because they responded to the huge and legitimate public concern but because they shared that concern, often on the basis of their own views and experience of the problem.

People are rightly sickened by some of the gratuitous and sadistic violence, often aimed at women and involving rape, portrayed in some videos that can and do find their way into the hands of children. We can argue about the nature of research, but surely it is common sense that a daily diet of such violence cannot be healthy for our children. Indeed, I would argue that it cannot be healthy for adults either, but they should be old enough to form their own judgments.

The House has a duty to protect children. Society has a duty to act through Parliament to protect children. Of course parents have the primary responsibility, and of course in legislating we do not in any sense attempt to diminish the responsibility of parents. But we also have a duty to act to protect children in circumstances in which they would not otherwise be protected.

It is precisely because we recognised the distinction between films being shown in cinemas, where access can be controlled, and videos for home viewing, that we passed the Video Recordings Act 1984. In order to legislate sensibly, we require, to put it briefly, a way through the following dilemma: how to prevent such sadistic and gratuitously violent videos from reaching children, without, by some form of legislative accident, banning serious films that may move us, and indeed shock us, but which do so for a serious and genuine purpose.

The film that is often quoted is "Schindler's List". That example makes the distinction. I would not want my eight-year-old child to watch it—it would be deeply disturbing. However, it is not a film that any sensible people would want banned. That is therefore the terrain in which we must negotiate.

11 pm

By imposing a statutory obligation on the board to take the care and protection of children into account but leaving them with legitimate boundaries of discretion intact, we can meet the public concern while avoiding the pitfalls. That is a sensible way to proceed. That is what we are attempting to do. We now have the basis to proceed. We can add a proper amendment to the Bill—we may improve the Bill in the course of doing so—and show that we have listened attentively to public opinion and yet legislated with care.

Mr. Alton

On the basis of the speeches made this evening, and the interventions by many right hon. and hon. Members, I am happy to withdraw the amendment that is before the House. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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