HL Deb 16 May 1978 vol 392 cc214-20

6.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I hope to detain your Lordships for an extraordinarily short time in moving this Motion. This is I believe an entirely beneficial and simple Bill. It is, as its title implies, a Bill to amend one particular section of the Films Act 1960. That Act dealt largely with the question of quota, "quota" being the cinema industry's short term for the obligation laid on cinemas to show a certain number of British films in any given year. That obligation of course is now to show a certain proportion of British and Common Market films, but the proportion remains the same, usually about 30 per cent. in the case of first feature films.

Section 6 of the Act dealt with one particular and rather individual problem. It sometimes happens that a cinema showing a foreign film will find quite by surprise that it has on its hands a success and that the film continues, by public demand as it were, to run for a considerable length of time. Because the provisions of the quota run year by year, exactly annually, it can happen that a cinema finding itself with a successful and long-running film on its hand is or might be obliged to take it off for a while simply to fulfil its quota obligations for that particular 12-month period and then put it back on again. By the time it comes back on again public interest may have evaporated, so that the whole business of taking it off in these circumstances would be frustrating for the public and obviously very poor business for the cinema.

Section 6 of the Act was designed to cope with the situation simply by saying that a cinema might, if it wished, make application to the Board of Trade, as it then was, via the Cinematograph Films Council, the most representative and authoritative body in the film industry, for a direction to be issued that its quota obligations could be taken over a two-year period; two years could be lumped together and averaged out. This amounted to, as it were, borrowing one's allowance of foreign films from the next year, and the effect of course was that exactly the same numbers of foreign and British films were shown as would have been shown, but there was simply an averaging out.

It was an entirely helpful piece of legislation. Unfortunately, the phrase in the Act which deals with this application says that the application must be made before the film is shown. Noble Lords will realise that in most cases it is not possible to predict which films will and which will not become great successes. This provision is intended to deal only with considerable success because it specifies that the film must be running for eight weeks before it applies, so it is clear that in most cases it is not possible to know in advance whether or not one will have that sort of film on one's hands.

Cinema proprietors are nothing if not optimistic, so noble Lords can imagine the result; they simply make application for every foreign film they are about to show on the off-chance that it may become one of the successes for which the provision was intended. This means of course that an enormous amount of wasted effort goes on because the Cinematograph Films Council and the Department of Trade must process an enormous number of applications which in the long run will be useless because they will not apply.

The Amendment proposed in the Bill deals with this problem simply. At this point I should perhaps mention two other small alterations in drafting which are what one might call modernising amendments simply to cope with the situation as it now is. For example, there is a bracket after the words "foreign film", so that it reads a foreign film (other than a Community film) That has come upon us with EEC legislation since the Films Act 1960 was passed. Also, where it used to say "Board of Trade" the phrase now reads, "Secretary of State for Trade". Those are automatic and what one might call modernising amendments, but the real amendment lies in some simple words. The 1960 Act said at the appropriate point: Where a film is to be exhibited at a cinema, and before it is exhibited there, an application for a direction may be made. The new Bill that I am proposing to your Lordships today says: Where a film … is to be or is being exhibited at a cinema and before or while it is exhibited there…". In these tiny phrases is contained the entire amendment proposed by the Bill. I believe that the Bill will save an enormous amount of wasted effort on the part of cinemas, the Cinematograph Films Council, and the Department of Trade. It will have no other effect whatsoever, except to prevent this waste of labour. I believe, therefore, that it is a Bill which will be of advantage to many people, and of disadvantage to no one whatever. Accordingly, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª—(Lord Birkett.)

7.1 p.m.


My Lords, we should all congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, upon bringing forward this small, but very useful Bill. I shall detain your Lordships only for a very short time, as I felt that the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, put the case very clearly. From these Benches we entirely, and wholeheartedly, support it. It would seem that the Bill could save a considerable amount of time for the Department of Trade and for the Cinematograph Films Council. As the noble Lord said, very few films are runaway successes, and even on the most optimistic figure only about 30 per cent. might be regarded in this way. So the Bill should save 70 per cent. of the labour on the applications which are brought forward. I hope that the Bill passes speedily through the House.

7.2 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, should like to join in the general welcome for the Bill. It is very nice to have Bills which enable people to do things rather than stop them doing things. It is very good to have Bills which mean less work and less bureaucracy, rather than those Bills which mean the opposite. The Bill proposes a highly desirable amendment, and I believe that everyone is extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, for putting it forward.

Of course, I cannot resist the opportunity —even though it will take me one minute, instead of the nought that is still on my "board"—to say that this does not necessarily mean that one approves of the quota system as such, and that a far greater simplification would be to abolish the quota system. Like most methods of protection, it in fact probably has rather harmful results. It may be to a certain extent responsible for the appalling state in which the British film industry is at the moment, or has been until fairly recently, and it may also deprive the few good films that we produce of some of their share of the overseas market, because of reciprocal feelings and actions on behalf of other countries. But as the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, courteously pointed out to me on the phone when I raised this matter, it is hardly germane to the Bill, which itself is totally to be welcomed, and I so welcome it.

7.4 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words in support of what has been said in welcoming the move being made by the noble Lord, Lord Birkett. Any assistance, no matter how tiny, that can be given to the cinema industry in this country, and in particular to proprietors of cinemas, can only be welcomed. The Bill represents a tiny, but welcome, contribution to help counter the paper work, the increases in the rates, the interference, and all the other matters which have made it almost impossible for people who have provided cinemas or leisure centres in small towns and villages to continue to do so.

The Bill will not make a great contribution to turning the tide which flows against these people; nevertheless, it is a contribution. Those of us in business today know how overwhelming paper work can be, particularly the kind of paper work in which, if a certain date is missed, a matter of principle has to go by default. The Bill is a tiny contribution towards helping to maintain cinemas in this country; this can only be welcomed. I hope that it is the first of many other moves to remove bureaucracy, so that people who want to provide these kind of leisure activities can do so without being stifled.

7.5 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, in this move to do away with a certain amount of bureaucracy—that may stagger him. First, I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, for bringing forward this small, but very important and useful, Bill, and indeed for the way in which he presented his case for it, albeit briefly. Before going further, I should add that the Government warmly support the Bill, and I hope that the House will give it a speedy passage. I have no authority to make any further comments for another place. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, mentioned quotas in his speech of commendation. Of course this is a vexed question, and I would remind him that the committee chaired by the right honourable Sir Harold Wilson is looking into all matters relating to films and can, if it wishes, report on the future of quotas. Perhaps the noble Lord will contact my right honourable friend, or his committee, and put forward various suggestions.

The noble Lord, Lord Birkett, has explained the purposes of the Bill so well that there is no need for me to add anything other than a few words of explanation, which may be helpful towards underlining what he said. Section 6 of the Films Act 1960 allows the Secretary of State for Trade, after application by a exhibitor, before—and it is important to note the word "before"—exhibition of a registered foreign film at the exhibitor's cinema, and after consultation with the statutory advisory body, the Cinematograph Films Council, to issue a direction enabling that cinema to fulfil its statutory quota by showings of British and Community films over the current year and the following year taken together, rather than in one year. This is, of course, of great convenience to exhibitors when they find that they are likely to have a long run of a foreign film which they do not wish to interrupt in order to fulfil their quota obligations within that same year.

I have stressed that the application has to be made before exhibition of the registered foreign film commences. This is a statutory requirement, and as far as we can discover, there is no reason why this time bar provision was put into the Act. It has, however, proved to be of great inconvenience to exhibitors. It means that they have to apply before they know whether the pulling power of a film is as good as they hope. Consequently, many exhibitors apply for a direction in anticipation of a good run—which direction is later found to be unnecessary, the film not having lived up to expectations.

This causes a great deal of work for exhibitors, and at the end of April 1977 nearly 70 per cent. of the directions issued had been of no effect. In February 1975 the Cinematograph Films Council recommended that Section 6 of the 1960 Act be amended to enable exhibitors to apply for a combination of quota periods before, and after, exhibition had commenced. The Government were awaiting a suitable legislative opportunity to take action on this recommendation, but the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, has stolen the march on us. It is a sensible amendment, and one which, if enacted, will save work and remove a slight source of irritation to cinema exhibitors. The Government commend and support the Bill, and I, in turn, commend it to your Lordships.

7.9 p.m.


My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have so kindly supported this small Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for emphasising the statistic of 70 per cent.; 70 per cent. of wasted effort is indeed a very large amount. Having said what I said over the telephone, it would not behold me to make much reference to the fine free trading speech that came from the Liberal Benches, but it was nice to hear it. I was pleased to note that the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, has warmth and sympathy for the film industry in general, and I know that it will hearten everybody to read his words.

I am also grateful to the Government for their support of this Bill. I, too, am looking forward enormously to the very much larger issues which will be discussed by Sir Harold's Committee. I think the whole film industry is looking forward to that as being the most important thing in our lives. I am grateful to noble Lords for all their support.

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


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[Sitting suspended from 7.10 p.m. until 8 p.m.]

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