HL Deb 28 February 1952 vol 175 cc380-92

4.12 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill amends the Cinematograph Act of 1909. I understand that when the Second Reading of that Act was moved in another place—curiously enough by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, whom I am sorry not to see here to-day—Mr. Tim Healy, a very vigorous commentator on Government affairs in those days, made a number of interesting but somewhat irrelevant remarks. He said that the word "cinema" in the Statute was an offence to the purity of the English language, and that in any event it would surely be better to use a word which everybody understood; and secondly, that the Liberal Government were trying to slip the Bill through at the end of August when everybody's attention was absorbed by Irish land legislation, the Budget and the impending visit of the Czar of Russia.

Many things have happened since, and it is remarkable that this great industry has not required Parliamentary attention for forty-three years. I submit that that is due to the good sense with which this industry has been conducted. To-day the cinema is the most widespread and popular of all forms of public entertainment. Something in the region of 30,000,000 people go every week to the the cinema and, so far as I know, on only one occasion since the war has there been a discussion on the industry in another place. As a result of that discussion a Committee was set up in the following summer—that is, in 1947. The results of the deliberations of that Committee—which was presided over by Professor Wheare—are now being brought forward for your Lordships' consideration to-day. I think we are indebted to that Committee for a penetrating and careful examination of a subject on which many strong and contradictory opinions are held. I suggest that this indicates that the matter has been studied with a good deal of common sense.

Before dealing with the Committee's recommendations, perhaps I may mention one or two figures in regard to the attendance of children at the cinema. These figures are taken from sample cinemas and must he regarded as reliable only within certain limits. They show that 50 per cent. of all children between the ages of five and ten attend regularly once a week. Among children between the ages of ten and fifteen, that percentage rises to 70—and to 80 in Scotland. The children who attend three times a week, or more often, represent probably something of the order of 5 per cent. of the whole school population. These figures are indeed staggering, and I suggest to your Lordships that they provide justification for treating the cinema on rather a different basis from the theatre.

I should like to allay anxiety which these figures may give by quoting to your Lordships the conclusion which the Committer, reached. In Paragraph 150 of their Report they say this: …the results do not, in our judgment, fasten on the cinema any primary share of responsibility for the delinquency or moral laxity of children under 16. In a very few cases certain parallels are suggested between the themes of crime and vice shown on the screen and the patterns of offences leading to the juvenile court and the approved school. But the link of cause and effect is unproved in a majority of cases and we remain of the opinion that deeper, subtler and more various influences are at work. Society cannot, however, overlook the likelihood that the cinema is a factor in this complex of moral and social forces, and no agency that is even secondarily involved can or ought to avoid some very serious self-examination as regards its standards and sense of responsibility. The Committee stated frankly that they were unable to say that very much was known about this subject, and they expressed the view that much closer examination was necessary before any positive and reliable conclusion could be drawn. What we propose to do by this Bill is to strengthen the existing organisation, while retaining its basic structure. We think we can by that means give adequate safeguards for the essential welfare of the children, and at the same time avoid any suggestion of State censorship. I submit to your Lordships that State censorship in arty form is highly undesirable.

Perhaps I may say one word as to how the present system has grown up. Following the passing of the 1909 Act, the courts gave that Act rather a wide interpretation, and it was found possible to deal not only with safety but with a number of other conditions. As a result, there was set up in 1912, on the initia- tive of the Kinematograph Association, the British Board of Film Censors. It is this body which has issued certificates classifying films as "U" or "A," terms which are no doubt familiar to all cinema-goers. In 1925 this classification was made official by being included in the model by-laws issued by the Home Office. More recently, the "H" and, last year, the "X" classifications have been added. In Scotland a much more rigid interpretation of the 1909 Act confined the powers of licensing authorities entirely to safety measures, with the result that at law no restriction of any kind exists as to which films can be shown to children or to anybody else. it is, however, proper to add that the film industry have voluntarily subjected themselves substantially to the same general rules as have been suggested by the model by-laws in England, and more recently have undertaken to exclude children entirely from cinemas showing "X" films. I should perhaps explain that the licensing authorities are the county councils, councils of county boroughs or magistrates, and in Scotland the magistrates of the burghs, constituting nearly a thousand authorities in all.

I should like to emphasise that the British Board of Film Censors, which has been established by producers, exhibitors, distributors and manufacturers of cinema instruments is entirely free of the industry itself. It is not subjected in any way to any force of the industry, and it is paid for by footage of film examined. I think the best assurance of that freedom lies in the character of the men who have filled the post of President of the Board. The present President is Sir Sidney Harris, formerly an Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office. Before him there was Lord Tyrrell, sometime Ambassador in Paris, Mr. Edward Short, at one time Home Secretary, and, before him, Mr. T. P. O'Connor. From that I think it is quite clear that the Board is an entirely independent body and one which can be relied upon. When the British Board of Film Censors have classified a film—and no film of course can be shown unless it passes the Film Censors—it is then the duty of the licensing authority to impose such restriction as they may think fit.

If I may now turn to the Wheare Report, I should like to deal with the four main recommendations which have been made. In one case, at least, I shall have to speak of some matters which are not in the Bill, to make clear what it is proposed that we should do. The first recommendation is very simple. It is that the 1909 Act shall be extended to include not only inflammable but non-inflammable films. At the present time not only are virtually all 16 mm. films non-inflammable but also a great number of the 35 mm. films are in fact non-inflammable. It is probably true that many films which are being shown in London at the present time are not legally subject to the 1909 Act at all. The second recommendation of the Committee was that the Secretary of State should be empowered to make regulations in regard not only to safety but also to the health and welfare of the children. It is thought that these minimum regulations should apply throughout the whole country. This is effected by Clause 2.

The third recommendation was that the licensing authorities should be given much wider powers, particularly in relation to the attendance of children at cinemas, and that the classification of films should be revised. Accordingly in Clause 3 the licensing authority are given much wider powers, and in particular have imposed upon them a duty to prohibit children from attending cinema exhibitions which are considered to be unsuitable for children. Moreover, the licensing authority can issue such conditions and restrictions on the attendance of children as they may think fit. In Clause 4 their consent is required for special cinema exhibitions for children, such as children's cinema clubs and minors' matinees. In regard to these, they may impose such restrictions and conditions in regard to attendance and premises as they think fit.

Perhaps I may say one word about the proposed new classification. This Bill has been drafted in order to preserve the complete independence of the licensing authorities in matters of censorship and to void the British Board of Film Censors from any form of statutory recognition. The Wheare Committee recommended that the first classification should be of films which children should not see; this, of course, is categorised as "X", and has already been introduced as the result of the recommendation. But I should add that licensing authorities remain free to decide either to accept the classification of the British Board of Film Censors (which in practice most of them do), or to set some other standard, either higher or lower, which they may think fit. The next category which the Committee recommended was for films especially suited for children, possibly to be known as class "C." Unfortunately, the difficulty here is that there are so few films of this type that any classification would not be very effective, although it is true that valuable work has been done by the J. Arthur Rank Organisation with their Children's Entertainment Films Section. In recent years they have produced a number of excellent films. This work has now been undertaken by the Children's Film Foundation. It is interesting to note that this important work has received little attention in the film industry, and very little has been done in this field abroad.

For the remaining films between those two extremes, the Committee recommend two categories—namely "A" and "U". Category "A" is preferably for adults only, and "U" films are films suitable for family entertainments. We consider that this is a matter which the licensing authorities should judge according to local feeling. The fourth recommendation of the Wheare Committee was that the Government should set up a central committee on children and the cinema, whose duty it would be to classify films in the interests of children. We feel, however, that classification inevitably blends into censorship. We therefore think that it is unwise that this work should be done by any body which is set up on behalf of the State, and that the object of the recommendation can probably be better attained by an unofficial development which has already taken place. Recently a Consultative Cinema Committee has been set up, under the chairmanship of the President of the British Board of Film Censors, which includes representatives of licensing authorities, on the one hand, and the producers, exhibitors, distributors of films and manufacturers of cinema projectors, on the other. In its constitution the purpose of this committee is described as being to provide a link between the licensing authorities and the industry itself. But what is more important, perhaps, for this purpose, is that the Committee has set up an advisory subcommittee to advise on questions relating to children. This sub-committee consists, on the one hand, partly of representatives of the main Committee, and, on the other, of members having a special knowledge of the needs of children. I would only say that the names of the persons on that Committee are very impressive, and should noble Lords wish to know them I should be very glad to supply them. From them your Lordships will realise that this is a Committee of some strength and judgment in this matter.

May I pass quickly to the rest of the Bill? Clause 5 distinguishes between commercial and non-commercial films, and it is intended that exemptions from licensing conditions will generally apply to film societies, educational bodies, religious bodies and exhibitions in private houses. In Clause 5 (3), special attention is given to the Highlands and Islands Film Guild, a non-profit-making organisation directed to bringing cultural and educational amenities to remote areas. Exemptions will not, however, cover children's cinema clubs, which are dealt with under Clause 4. Clause 6 deals with the right of appeal. In this Bill we are proposing to give very big powers to licensing authorities, and we think that there should be a right of appeal to some court against the conditions and restrictions applied by licensing authorities. Therefore we are suggesting that in England tat court should be a court of quarter sessions, and that in Scotland it should be the sheriff's court. Clause 7 enables a cinema licence to cover incidental music during a cinematograph exhibition. This Bill strengthens and clarifies the authority of licensing bodies and, I suggest, gives them all the power they need to safeguard the essential welfare of children. Secondly, it avoids any suggestion of State censorship. I know that many people would like to feel that children saw only films which were suitable for them, but the frank answer to that is that there just are not enough films of that type. I suggest that this 13il1 is a really fair compromise between unrestricted licence and a puritanical renunciation of simple pleasures. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Selkirk.)

4.28 p.m.


My Lords, may I in the first place congratulate the noble Earl on the clarity and brevity with which he has submitted this Bill to your Lordships? It is clear, as we should naturally expect, that the noble Earl has mastered the Bill. I should like, if I may, to join with him in the well-deserved tribute which he has paid to the cinema industry. Some of the clauses of this Bill are quite unexceptionable, but while, of course, this is not in any way a Party measure, and we are not approaching it in any Party sense, that should not prevent your Lordships from examining its provisions very carefully. As I read the Bill, Clause 5 will permit certain cinematograph exhibitions to which the public are not admitted—namely, private performances or those to which the public is admitted without payment, other than children's cinema club exhibitions—to be given without a licence. Gradually, and over a very long period, licensing authorities have laboriously built up what I might call a code covering a wide range of conditions. This code has been imposed upon and accepted by the cinema proprietors. Further, there is a regular and constant supervision by the officers of the licensing authorities, and the annual licensing meeting affords an opportunity for a review to ensure that all the conditions imposed by the licensing authority have been faithfully observed in their particular area. In addition, there is the important fact that the police have an opportunity at the annual licensing meeting of submitting any observations they may think desirable.

In my local government experience I have always found cinema proprietors most co-operative. Generally speaking, it has all been "done by kindness," but, of course, the cinema managers are acutely aware that any shortcomings or failures may be reported to the annual licensing meeting in their area and that they would then be in for an uncomfortable time. As I read this Bill, the whole of this valuable code imposed on the cinema proprietors in the interests of the public, sometimes at great cost, is to be jettisoned so far as exempted exhibitions are concerned—exhibitions which, by the way, are relieved from the payment of entertainment tax, on the ground that they are not exhibitions for private profit. Yet, so far as I can see, although at these exhibitions no charge is made for admission, there is nothing in the Bill to prohibit the taking of a collection, thus getting over the question of charging for admission.

There is a further point which may be a serious one. I agree with the noble Earl that one does not want a censorship which would be obnoxious, but I am advised that it would be possible for lewd or bawdy pictures, of a type almost unknown in this country, to be shown at these exempted exhibitions. It does not seem to me to be an adequate answer to say that in these circumstances the police would take action. I submit, with respect, that it would be unfortunate if serious questions of this description were left to the police and the courts of summary jurisdiction. I put it quite clearly and categorically to the Minister that these exempted exhibitions should not be freed from the conditions rightly imposed, in the interests of the public, on ordinary commercial exhibitions. May I put it in another way? I most strongly urge on the Minister that there should be no exemption from licensing control as is proposed in Clause 5, except in relation to exhibitions in private houses or on premises occupied by educational, religious or youth organisations?

I would add, too, with respect, that similar considerations must be urged regarding children's performances of any kind, whether club or otherwise, where these are exempted exhibitions under Clause 5 (3). May I remind your Lordships that many licensing authorities, taking into account the fact that, in the event of fire or panic, children would be more difficult to control than adults, have imposed special conditions as to the number of attendants required to be on duty during children's performances? Clause 4 imposes special control of children's performances, but apparently children attending an exempted performance are not to have the protection given to children attending an ordinary children's matinée. While I do not for one moment suggest that anyone would deliberately set out to debauch the minds of children, obviously there are certain types of films—horror films and productions of that kind—which are not suitable for exhibition to children, even though the younger generation to-day is said to be very "tough." Incidentally, I am advised that there is nothing in the Bill to prevent children from attending an exempted performance, at which there is no charge for admission, although the films exhibited may deal with sex problems and such topics. This last, of course, is a matter which I need not elaborate this afternoon. I do most earnestly submit to the Minister that the clauses dealing with children need the most careful reconsideration.

Finally, may I say this? Clauses 1 and 2 provide for regulations to be made by the Secretary of State. Just as the cinema people, locally, have always been most helpful, may I suggest that the representative organisations of the cinema industry should be consulted before the regulations are issued? I hope the Minister will take my assurance that I and those who sit with me on these Benches are only anxious that this Bill should be made a workable one, and are not approaching the problem in any spirit of criticism. While I have no interest in the cinema industry, as such, except for occasional attendance at the showing of a film, I am willing to co-operate so far as I can in an endeavour to clear up the points which I have raised. I would merely add that, since I have not had an opportunity in advance of advising the noble Earl in charge of the Bill of the points which I have put before your Lordships, I do not expect an answer to them this afternoon.

4.37 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to join my noble friend who has just spoken in tendering congratulations to the introducer of the Bill and to say that, generally speaking, I look upon this measure as a move in the right direction. But I am asked by the London County Council to call attention, on their behalf, to one or two matters. My noble friend who has just spoken has already referred to one of them. There are, the council feel, some weaknesses in Clauses 5 and 6. For instance, Clause 5 creates for the first time a distinction between commercial and non-commercial exhibitions, and while the Bill increases licensing control in the case of commercial exhibitions it abolishes control in the case of non-commercial exhibitions, except so far as safety requirements are concerned. It is strongly urged that this distinction is unsound.

I do not want to traverse ground which my noble friend Lord Burden has already covered, but I wish to draw the attention of your Lordships to the comment contained in the Report of the Departmental Committee on Children and the Cinema which sat under the chairmanship of Professor Wheare. The Report contained this passage: We have no hesitation in recommending that action should be taken to bring under control all commercial exhibitions of films, whether inflammable or slow-burning, in matters relating to the attendance of children and particularly in relation to the standards of the films a1lowed to be shown when children are present in the audiences.… We have not considered it within our province to concern ourselves with the standards governing exhibition of 16 mm. films given to children privately and on a non-commercial basis by such bodies as church organisations or youth clubs. As my noble friend Lord Burden has pointed out, there is nothing in the Bill which will prevent children from going to performances which might well be considered extremely objectionable.

The Landon County Council further point out that under the Bill it would be possible for any and every kind of film, whether or not rejected by the British Board of Film Censors or a licensing authority, including sex instruction films regarded as unsuitable for public exhibition because of their clinical and venereal disease sequences, or films concerning drug addicts, to be shown to children of any age. The noble Earl might care to consider whether something could be done on Committee stage to meet this point. I urge that no exemption from licensing control should be conceded, as proposed by Clause 5 of the Bill, except in relation to exhibitions given in private dwelling-houses or in premises occupied by educational, religious or youth organisations. I feel that this is necessary to make the Bill really effective.

In regard to Clause 6, the London County Council suggest that proposed appeals from decisions of the licensing authorities refusing or revoking a licence should lie not to quarter sessions but to a public appellate tribunal for the whole country. In support of that suggestion, I would point out that Clause 6 gives the right of appeal to quarter sessions to any person aggrieved by the refusal or revocation of a licence under the Cinematograph Act, 1909, or of a consent under Clause 4 of the Bill in respect of the holding of children's cinematograph exhibitions; or who is aggrieved by any terms, conditions and restrictions on which any such licence or consent is granted. Appeals against refusal or revocation of licences may arise out of such matters as the premises being below the standards of safety laid down by the local licensing authority, the unsuitability of the applicant, repeated disregard of licensing conditions, and improper conduct of premises. As regards appeals against the terms and conditions of licences, these would normally relate to safety, including matters such as structure, fire precautions, means of exit, and sanitation and other health requirements, or to matters relating to the health, welfare and admission of children.

The London County Council have had as wide an experience of the control of cinemas and the care of children as anybody in the country, and they consider the quarter sessions an unsuitable body to determine technical questions such as those arising from the control of cinemas. They suggest that an appellate tribunal for the whole country should be set up to deal with these matters. Licensing authorities are guided by the experience gained over a period of years and form their views in the light of that experience and their accumulated knowledge of the subject. If there is to be an appeal from their decisions, it could be more easily dealt with by a single administrative tribunal of the kind suggested than by quarter sessions. Such a tribunal would build up knowledge of the general practice in such matters and establish uniform standards of practice throughout the country. I think that is essential and that we should take the opportunity afforded by this Bill of bringing it about.

Under the Bill, quarter sessions would frequently have to decide on the facts of particular cases, simply on the basis of their own opinions, without adequate knowledge of past practice or the advice of assessors. Furthermore, decisions of various quarter sessions might well introduce conflicting opinions, which would be likely to create confusion and prevent the maintenance of a uniform and workable code of standards. I would urge that a public administrative tribunal should be established for the whole country, possibly on the lines of the Lands Tribunal, to hear all appeals under the Bill. On allowing any appeal, this tribunal would be empowered to issue to the licensing authority any direction necessary to give effect to the appeal, and the authority should be bound by that direction. I urge this upon the Government not only because I have been asked to do so by the London County Council, but also because of my own knowledge of these matters. It would be a great pity if we lost the opportunity given us by this Bill and had to come back again in a short time in order to make good these omissions. I put these suggestions before the noble Earl, trusting that he will give them due consideration, so that if they are raised on Committee stage we may hope that there will be some agreement to amend the Bill.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken, both for the kind things they said about me and for the welcome they have given to the Bill. The general line of the Bill has proved acceptable and has been welcomed by noble Lords. I was extremely glad to hear them say so. To a great extent, the points that have been raised are points for discussion on Committee stage. In the Bill we are giving great powers to the London County Council and other licensing authorities, of which there are something like a thousand in the country. I think that to set up one single tribunal for the whole country would be bad mechanics, apart from anything else. I do not see why we should set up such a tribunal. I wholly disagree with the idea that the practice should be uniform from one end of the country to the other. The reason for giving these powers to licensing authorities is that they are best able to form an opinion about what would be objectionable to the citizens living in their locality. I do not think that the appeal to quarter sessions is something that the licensing authorities need worry about. What are the grounds of appeal?—that the licensing authority have gone outside the Statute or that they are wholly unreasonable. I do not think that to ask for a decision on those points is asking very much. I am sure that the procedure of allowing both sides to express their views clearly before a given arbitrator is a good one, because when they have done that, it often happens that both sides see there is more in the other side's case than they thought at first, and are able to come to an agreement.

Both noble Lords raised the question of exempted cases under Clause 5. Here we are of opinion that we should leave the utmost liberty that we can give to film guilds, educational, religious and other bodies. It may be that we have leaned too far on the side of liberty. That is a criticism I should much more willingly accept than the other. Clause 5 is not very easy to understand and I think it is one we should discuss further on Committee. But do the noble Lords appreciate that all the dreadful things which they prognosticated could happen to-day and there is nothing at all to stop them? There is no licensing of non-inflammable films and anyone can exhibit 16 mm. films on any subject he likes. But is anybody doing it? Nobody is doing it. Are we, therefore, to be so afraid of what might happen when this Bill gives the licensing authorities a great deal more power of regulation? Is it likely that anyone would give bawdy exhibitions in London without any remuneration? I do not know. But the Bill is intended to cover a situation of that sort. If we have left a loophole in the Bill, we will certainly deal with it. I assure your Lordships that in issuing regulations under the Bill we will certainly consult the industry itself, so far as we consider it desirable to do so. I thank noble Lords again for welcoming the Bill and for their interesting and valuable contributions.

On Question, Bill read 2a; and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.