HL Deb 21 January 1993 vol 541 cc1013-28

6.35 p.m.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

In doing so I utter the hope that your Lordships will find, as I do, that this measure is simple, effective and quite uncontroversial. Perhaps I should begin by declaring my position in the matter. I am a vice-president of the British Board of Film Classification. The British Board of Film Classification is the body responsible for classifying videos, as indeed it is in a non-statutory way in classifying films. The noble Earl, Lord Harewood, is the president of the board. Monica Sims and myself are the two vice-presidents. We three are those nominated under the Act to govern the operations of the British Board of Film Classification and therefore in some measure are responsible for the good working of the Video Recordings Act itself.

That Act was introduced, it is often supposed, mainly to cope with the problem of the video nasties which were prevalent at the time; and indeed I think it has been effective, since those video nasties are no longer to be found in the market-place. But it was not entirely for that purpose that the Act was introduced. It introduced a system of classification which was intended to be a help both to the trade and to the public. Your Lordships will be well aware of the classifications that are involved. There is "U" for universal, which means that the video can be available to anybody. There is "PG", which means parental guidance. It can still be available to everybody but it is a warning to parents, particularly in relation to very young children, that there may be things in it which might worry them and they should have a look first. Then there is "15", which clearly means that it must not be supplied either for hire or for sale to people under the age of 15, and "18", which means the same thing in relation to the age of 18. Nowadays, in fairly rare cases, there is "18R", which means restricted and that it is to be supplied only in licensed sex shops.

The Video Recordings Act set up quite a formidable series of regulations to run this system. It is fair to say that the three most important to the Bill we are considering today are, first, that every video which is supplied to the trade or, most importantly of course, to the public must have a certificate from the British Board of Film Classification. It must carry that certificate and it is illegal to supply for sale or for hire any video which does not have a certificate on it. It is also illegal to supply ones that have "15" or "18" upon them to people below those ages. Thirdly, there is a complicated series of regulations stipulating that the video itself and the case it comes in must carry the standard label which proclaims what classification has been awarded.

The video industry, by and large, has been both conscientious and assiduous in following those guidelines and regulations and in manipulating its trade in accordance with them. Indeed the industry has done a great deal to educate its members and the public in that respect. The setting up of the Video Standards Council has been particularly helpful in that regard. But it makes it all the more galling when one finds a few individuals who deliberately flout the law, most obviously those who trade in videos that have no certificate at all.

In some cases that is because the videos are of a nature so pornographic or so full of intolerable violence that those people recognise perfectly well that they would not be given a certificate by the British Board of Film Classification and they have therefore not even been submitted. In some cases it is merely meanness or the thought that they will get away with it that enables them to do that. In some cases videos are altered. Cuts are made and the videos are given a certificate, either a "15" or an "18", with recommendations as to what level of violence would be acceptable. Then one discovers that they are on the market with the cuts restored and in quite a different version from that which was certificated.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that absence of prosecution or difficulties in prosecution encourage people to behave in that way and to flout the law. The Bill before your Lordships' House this evening does two quite simple things to remove the inhibitions on prosecutions in those cases. The first involves Sections 1 and 3 and Section 4 which bring the Scottish law into line with other law in respect of Sections 1 and 3. Perhaps I may therefore take Sections 1, 3 and 4 together. They deal with the certificates of evidence that are required for a prosecution to be undertaken. Those certificates of evidence are invariably asked of the BBFC, that being the only board with the expertise to provide them. However, for the certificate to be valid, present legislation states that not only must every video seized in a prosecution and therefore in the dock as it were be examined against all the BBFC's records, but every single one must be viewed. In a case in which 300 unmarked, unclassified videos are seized, each of which is two hours long, the requirement that every one shall be viewed is impossible to implement. It means 600 hours of viewing, which is plainly impossible for the BBFC to undertake. Often two or three videos are seen, certificates of evidence are provided and the other 297 or 298 are effectively sent back when the prosecution ends. That is plainly a totally ineffective way of proceeding in terms of prosecutions.

The Bill proposes that each video has assigned to it by the BBFC a unique title and number. Indeed, that is already the case, but the Bill provides that a register must be retained of those titles and numbers. A certificate of evidence will be sufficient if the video concerned has been checked against that register and the title appears on the list.

If the matter in question is whether a video has been altered, it will have to be examined in order to discover the differences between what is in our file and what is on sale to the public. However, that involves the minority of cases and in most cases an enormous amount of time will be saved by this simple and, as far as I can see, foolproof procedure. It will be open to a trader who is prosecuted under the legislation to maintain that the record is wrong or that the title has been altered. If that proves to be the case, all well and good. I suspect that such a defence will be offered only rarely because the cases with which we are dealing are not of the kind in which such a defence is tenable. This will have a great effect on the number and effectiveness of prosecutions against the kind of people to whom I have referred.

The second matter with which the Bill deals falls under Clause 2 relating to the time limit available for prosecutions. Under the Video Recordings Act prosecutions are only triable in magistrates' courts. Under Section 127 of the Magistrates Courts Act 1980 the relevant information must be laid within six months of an offence being committed. The investigations into these cases are often very complicated, sometimes involving many visits to the traders concerned. As I have explained, the works have to be submitted to the BBFC for certificates of evidence. Sometimes local authorities have to be consulted before prosecutions can be authorised. All those things add up to a considerable delay. Some prosecutions have been well justified and would probably have been successful had the time limit not expired.

The Bill proposes that the time limit be changed to three years from the commission of an offence or one year from its discovery by the prosecuting authority, whichever is the earlier. That effectively means that no trader will have to wait more than one year before knowing whether he will be prosecuted. It also helps to dispose of prosecutions that would otherwise be so ancient as to put the memory of witnesses beyond credence. I am well aware that one should be careful about legislation involving too long a time limit in these matters. People should not be asked to wait too long before knowing their fate. I believe that the proposals are a decent compromise between those cares to which I have referred and the need for a reasonable time available for prosecution.

These two measures will be extremely helpful in bringing to justice those people who deliberately abuse a system which I think it is fair to say is, by and large, universally respected and recognised. I hope the Bill will bring what is already a pretty effective system one step nearer to being universally effective. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

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

6.47 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, but before I deal with the Bill I should like to say in passing that I understand that the noble Lord's learned father started his law practice in Birmingham where I come from. I should like him to know how much his father was admired and respected for his judicial service on the Midlands Circuit.

Although I support the Bill, I believe that it omits a vital yet straightforward clause which now stands in many statutes relating to consumer protection. Although trading standards authorities can avail themselves of general powers under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 to assist in controls on video recordings, this piece of legislation contains no bypass procedure enabling authorities to prosecute companies outside their own administrative boundary, but which cause offence within their administrative boundary. As the noble Lord said, the omission of a bypass procedure creates difficulties and delays which we must avoid if possible.

The bypass procedure is commonplace in consumer protection legislation. Under the procedure the original wrongdoer can be brought to book where he has caused another to commit an offence. I feel sure that that proposal will enjoy the support of the House. If one is to put a Bill of this description into order, one must go to the root of the evil.

The omission of this provision from the Act has unfortunate repercussions in the hands of the local authorities. Perhaps I may give an example: should a trading standards officer, say in Birmingham, find that a local business has been selling unclassified videos, under the law he can take the trader to court. However, if the trading standards officer is of the opinion, after investigation, that the local businessman was misled by the supplier in London and did not know that he was doing anything wrong, then the picture is somewhat different. Without the bypass the trading standards department in Birmingham would be unable to prosecute the supplier in London because, as I have said, the offence would have been committed outside the jurisdiction of the local authority boundary.

Therefore, under the Bill as it has been brought forward today, there will only be the option of taking action against the local trader even though that individual may have obtained the videos in good faith. Alternatively, London has to be asked about the matter. Obviously, two authorities investigating the same offence is an ineffective use of scarce enforcement resources. I am sure that the Government would not want to think that any local authority was wasting any of its resources.

How much more sensible it would be to have a bypass clause enabling just one authority to investigate the offence and, where necessary, to pursue it along the distributive chain to the original wrongdoer. That arrangement is both effective and economical. It has been shown to work in connection with a whole range of consumer protection measures. In view of the difficulties, there would seem to be considerable merit in introducing a bypass procedure into the video recordings legislation thereby enabling all authorities to carry investigations through to their logical end. As I said, that means a more efficient use of enforcement resources and it will assist those retailers who have obtained non-complying works in good faith.

The inclusion of a bypass provision imposes no further burdens on businesses and nor does it introduce any new controls; it simply facilitates effective enforcement by local authorities. Indeed, such inclusion would perhaps in the long run reduce burdens on legitimate retail and distributive companies and at the same time streamline the legal proceedings. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, will be sympathetic to the intentions behind a possible amendment of the kind I have spoken about.

If the Bill is to be made as effective as possible in improving enforcement, I am convinced that a bypass provision should be incorporated. An amendment introducing the bypass procedure would sit well with the intended aim of the noble Lord's Bill, which is to improve the effectiveness of the Video Recordings Act. The bypass would both promote the efficient use of enforcement resources, assist those retailers who have obtained non-complying videos in good faith, and increase the likelihood of bringing the real culprits before the courts.

6.55 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I welcome the arrival of this Bill in your Lordships' House and the work done for it by its promoter in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Birkett. I do so with a particular nostalgic relish because it carries forward a little further the work of the Act which it amends which was so firmly and effectively piloted through this House by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford and for which, as a Minister at the Home Office, I had overall responsibility. It is a great pity that the noble Lord cannot be here. I hope that your Lordships who will remember the courtesy, effectiveness and lucidity of his contribution on this and many other subjects over many years, will use the columns of Hansard to join me in wishing him well.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Act of that day was designed to protect the public, and particularly the young members of it, from the violence and filth which sections of the trade were at that time promoting. Some of your Lordships will remember the revulsion which many of us felt when we were shown, under arrangements made by my noble friend, some examples of this material, images from which still, I regret, haunt my memory.

My noble friend's Act was successful and I am sorry that he is not here. That success depended of course not only on the drafting but on the implementation. The industry should be complimented on its response to that. That has been formulated for the most part by three organisations within it: the Video Trade Association, which through its family code has done much to encourage shops to cater for families and children; the Video Standards Council, which has drawn up a code of practice and endorsed reputable dealers; and the Video Consultative Council, formed in response to a Home Office initiative, which monitors the operation of the Act.

Presiding over that generally welcome response, and exercising a very considerable influence over it from outside, there has been the Board of British Film Classification over which the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, in turn at least partially presides. And above even that, in a quasi-judicial, but absolutely crucial position for the maintenance of standards, is the Video Appeals Committee.

While we should all welcome the way in which, under this Act, the industry and the board put a lid on the sort of "video nasties" that gave rise to it, we do need to consider the trends that have developed since in the areas to which the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, referred; namely, the protection and guidance of the public. About that I believe that we cannot afford to be entirely complacent. They broadly suggest that the proposals in the Bill to facilitate prosecutions are needed. I should point out that the role of the board in this is no longer, as its title suggests, a minority function of a body primarily concerned with the big screen. The noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe the fact to be that over 70 per cent. of its income is derived from video classification. The function we are addressing is therefore the central function of the board.

The development of the trend started in 1991 when the board began to classify with an 18 certificate works with explicit sexual scenes for educational purposes. I believe that at the time the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, felt that they should fall outside the provisions of legislation, but they are within it. I understand that it would have been difficult to withhold a certificate from such products altogether.

Since then over 100 videos have been certified in this new sex education genre and the board itself reports that items of this sort captured the best-seller slot in the autumn of 1991. I also understand that the explicit scenes in the first batch included masturbation and oral sex. One has to ask whether certificates that permitted the sale of such material by W.H. Smith were entirely appropriate given the fact that in any such genre the tendency is never to stay still but to seek to move the boundaries, which its proponents always call "frontiers", in a direction which they always call "forward", but which many of us believe to be "down".

The board is the guardian of those lines of demarcation which have a decisive effect not just on the entertainment of literally millions of people, but on their perceptions of, attitudes to, behaviour towards, and treatment of, individuals of the opposite sex. Common sense and the volume of sales and hirings suggests that these videos are used not only —probably not even primarily—for their declared educational purpose. That might not be a matter for your Lordships' concern. Times change and your Lordships may ask who are we to trouble ourselves with a little private titillation. Surely prudery has no place in legislation.

But the material of which I am speaking is reported to be material similar to that which the Obscene Publications Squad at Scotland Yard has prosecuted in the past. On page 14 of its annual report for 1991, the board itself draws attention to the pressure being put on it by the producers of admittedly pornographic material to give an 18 certificate to material fit only for an R18 classification, which means that it is restricted to sale only through a licensed sex shop. The producers' motivation, it says, is the decline in the number of such licensed outlets. Your Lordships should note with care, and possibly surprise, that the support afforded by three decisions of the video appeal committee, overturning awards by the board of R18 certificates on the grounds that they amounted to a restriction of trade because of the reduced number of outlets. That is how I read page 14 of the board's annual report.

There is an irony in this. I can think of only two interpretations of the phenomenon. Either the market is rejecting the offerings of the licensed sex shops, including R18 videos, or the local authorities are rejecting them. If the market is rejecting them, it is not part of the remit of the board to adjust the market in their favour, and still less of the committee to force it to do so. If, on the other hand—and this is more likely—society is rejecting them and is expressing that rejection through the decisions of the local licensing authority, we would expect —would we not?—that the regulatory authority would be on the side of the public, not of the producer. It can be no part of the business of the board—still less of the committee—to manipulate the system so as to reduce the protection of the public and to make it more rewardingly exploitable by the producers of this material.

Our intention when we passed the Act was not to secure profit to the producers of sexually explicit or violent videos. It was to protect the public from exploitation (and in some cases corruption by the exploitation) by those who produce such material. Our concern was especially for the young. We really must consider, therefore, whether the board and the committee are effectively implementing the wishes of this House and another place. I reminded your Lordships when the Act was passed, and I remind your Lordships and the board again, that it is not necessary that this guardianship should always be entrusted to the same bodies. That function can be discharged by others, and if the board falls short in its trusteeship your Lordships may decide that a change should be made. I am perhaps taking an extreme case, but we must always consider what the statute was framed for. In making that consideration, we will do well to remember not only the board's sensible conclusion that every image should be considered in its context, but also its much more startling conclusion on page 9 that, no image is taboo per se". General reaction to recent advertisements by United Colours of Benetton suggests to me that even if this is the view of lawyers, it is not the view of the British public.

I suggest to the Minister that his department should undertake a review of the maintenance of standards of classification by the board and of the influence upon it by the appeals committee. In the light of that review, he should give guidance and, after a period, consider whether it is discharging its functions satisfactorily. If it is not, the remedy lies in Section 4(4) and both the board and the committee should be aware of it.

In the context of that anxiety, I strongly hope that such guidance will be adhered to by the board and the committee. I should add that, in most respects, I admire their work. I hope that I do not sound intemperate in so speaking, but I believe that this is a very important matter. In the context of that anxiety, I feel that we need to address separately the protection given to children under the Act so that something can be done before such a review takes place. That protection seems incomplete in three respects. First, there is nothing in law to prevent unsuitable promotional excerpts from 15 or 18 classification videos being run unsupervised in shops where children can see them.

Secondly, there is nothing in law to prevent 15 and 18 videos being shown in public places to younger children whom the classification was expressly designed to protect. Irresponsible adults do, in fact, permit showings of very violent films in the upper end of this category to audiences which include children of seven and eight.

Thirdly, the law does not prevent people under 18 working as assistants in video shops where they come under peer-group pressure to release 18 classification videos to 15 year-olds and younger. There is a direct analogy here with the licensing for sale of alcoholic drinks, where the law prohibits the employment of people under 18 from selling what they may not legally buy. The same rule should, in my view, apply here too.

The Long Title does seem to admit of amendments to address those ills and remedy them. I shall be looking for draft amendments to do so from the Christian Action Research and Education Trust and, if they prove appropriate, I shall seek to bring them to your Lordships for your consideration and, perhaps, your approval.

The Bill also appears to admit amendments on the lines proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, as bypass provisions. As an honorary life vice-president of the Institute of Trading Standards Administration—I believe that the noble Baroness holds a similar position, but I may be wrong—I have seen its argument in their defence. At first glance, what the noble Baroness has said appears persuasive and I shall listen carefully to the Minister to see whether that is acceptable. I shall listen also to the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, in a similar frame of mind.

On the wider issue of the maintenance of suitable standards by the board, I await with great interest the response of my noble friend the Minister. I also await, with apologies for not giving him notice, his reply to these questions. I shall understand if he replies later in writing. Can my noble friend say how the enforcement of the Act is going? And is it the case that the police can prosecute only with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions? That was a proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. I do not know whether to say that I am heartened or rendered anxious by the sight of him sitting in his usual place because I remember the considerable cogency and, if I may say so, the considerable length of his interventions in our proceedings on the substantive Bill. It is always a pleasure to hear the noble Lord. I felt that even at the end of that debate. Although I do not encourage him to add his name to a list of speakers which is already complete, nonetheless he is very welcome. I hope that that does not sound patronising. It was meant to sound friendly!

I have referred to a proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, which I resisted in 1984 on Home Office advice. Can my noble friend the Minister say whether the police are content that all videos being classified are within the obscenity test of the 1959 Act, vague though it is? I am grateful to your Lordships for your patience, and to the noble Lord for his Bill.

7.7 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I rise to support the Bill which has been introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, which seeks to amend the Video Recordings Act 1984. I rise also to give notice of my intention to table an amendment at a later stage. Similar notice was also given earlier by my noble friend and by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, a moment ago.

When the legislation was first put before the other place and this House, it was a matter for the Home Office. It never crossed my path in my days either as a junior Minister or as Home Secretary. Nevertheless, this Bill enables me to ask a question that I have thought about often during the three years since becoming president of the Video Standards Council. We are interested in what the Home Office says about the Bill and, as I shall reveal in a moment, from time to time we make a purely voluntary report to the Home Office. I understand that the Department of the Environment has a role, but I am not quite sure how, and the Department of Trade and Industry certainly has a role in this. Therefore, I wonder which department is in charge. I shall refer in a moment to the work of the trading standards officers, which seems rather different from the work of the police who report to the Home Office, or to the work of the fire service which also reports to the Home Office. If someone reports to two or three different places, who reads that report? Who says, "Is this Act working? Should we make changes? Are we doing enough for the trading standards officers?" I shall be interested to know how the co-ordination takes place.

As I have said, I am president of the Video Standards Council and must therefore declare an interest. Since becoming president, with every month I have learnt more about what goes on with the sale of videograms. It has excited my interest. One important point to bring to your Lordships' notice is that the Video Standards Council is funded by the producers of videograms, the distributors and the retailers. About 90 per cent. of all those involved are members of the VSC. There is interest outside of government to ensure that the Act is properly enforced and that standards are maintained. People are concerned to improve standards. Age-restricted titles have been dealt with. There is piracy, although that is not directly its concern. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, mentioned a code of practice, and perhaps I may return to that point in a moment.

Members of the VSC are members of the Video Advertising Review Committee. It is important to take into account the advertising on the sleeves of the videograms. They are members of the Packaging Committee and the Video Consultative Council which works with the BBFC.

As I said, the council produces a report, and we are in the process of writing one now which will be brought to the notice of the Home Secretary. There should be communication between the various government departments. Trading standards officers are worried about a number of matters. The council publishes its own training video. It has its own version—I cannot use a stronger word—of the Act. Those involved in the video industry can read it. It helps them to carry out their job properly.

Referring to what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, we have also set up a Video Consultative Committee. It has representatives from the Mothers' Union, the Salvation Army, the Womens' Institute, boys' clubs, the Evangelical Alliance, and a headmaster of a comprehensive school in Kent. I am a member of the committee. Once every quarter we listen to people from outside the industry talking about the issues and problems, some of which we put to them and some of which they bring to our notice. All are interested to see that video is presented responsibly. That it why I and the VSC support the Bill. The Bill deals with an extension of time limits and changes some evidential matters.

I understand that trading standards officers support the Bill, as my noble friend said. The two occasions that I have been out with trading standards officers made me realise what a difficult job we ask them to undertake. When I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland going out at night on patrol with the Army made me aware of matters about security policy which, sitting in my room at Stormont, never crossed my mind. Going out with trading standards officers in north Kensington made me realise some of the problems that they face. It is a difficult job. They are understaffed. They have a variety of other jobs to do. I wonder whether enough is done to help them do their job. It is not enough to have an Act of Parliament, a Bill to amend it and suggestions for other amendments, if they are not properly enforced.

I wish to give notice that I shall bring forward an amendment. There will be plenty of time to develop the issue in Committee. It is on a theme similar to that which will be proposed by my noble friend Lady Fisher although in a different context. We believe that there is a need for "due diligence" defence in the field of video as there is in relation to the sale of other consumer goods. The due diligence defence should apply to the sale of age-restricted video titles to those below a specified age. I shall put down an amendment to that effect. It is supported by the British Retail Consortium and trading standards officers.

I wonder whether people realise the difficulties involved. Section 11 of the Video Recordings Act is different from the provision in the Trade Descriptions Act, the Consumer Credit Act, the Weights and Measures Act, the Consumer Protection Act, and the Food Safety Act. Why should it be different when one sells videograms? In general, those Acts provide that it shall be a defence for the person charged to prove that he took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of an offence by himself or by a person under his control. That is not so with the sale of videos. It is especially a problem for a limited company. Such a company can be prosecuted despite having no knowledge of the transaction and having made all efforts to ensure that staff are trained properly and fully conversant with the law. That is why VSC provides a training guide as well as a video film. I have a document which is used by Woolworth, W. H. Smith, HMV and Our Price, which are all large dealers. I shall quote some of the guidance contained: All staff to be made aware of the law relating to video with particular reference to age-restricted video titles … It should be made clear that the supply of an age-restricted title to an under-age person is a criminal offence and that breach of the law can result in the member of staff and/or the company being prosecuted". It develops the guidance and states: All staff to be regularly reminded of the law relating to video … The system for reminding staff can vary from verbal reminders to the inclusion of reminders in staff news letters, magazines etc. It deals with younger members of staff. This is a point that will be of interest to the noble Lord, Lord Elton. It states: If members of staff under the age of 18 are permitted to supply a video then even greater care will need to be taken with the instruction and reminder procedure". The guidance deals with displays, what happens behind the counter, and responsibility.

VSC multiple retail members have agreed to comply with those guidelines and the ITSA and LACOTS have agreed that if that guidance is complied with nothing further could reasonably be expected of them. If the distinction implied in the due diligence provision is not recognised, why bother to implement the law? If the distinction is made, it will encourage the rental members of the VSC in particular, and small traders to do their job properly.

In practice court decisions have shown that it is difficult to rely upon statutorily based offences. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, asked for a resume—that may not have been the word he used—of how the legislation has been implemented over the years. Before the Committee stage is reached perhaps we could be told the nature of offences committed and what has happened about them in the magistrates' courts. The Act was designed to bring these matters before the magistrates' courts. Have many cases been brought? If not, why not? We need some statistics.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the cases which are not brought are equally important because of the arrangements which prevent the police from prosecuting?

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I respond gladly to that point. We need details of cases which were not brought before the courts. I agree with the noble Lord on that point. Members of the video industry bother. I have been astonished at the degree to which they bother. The due diligence defence which I shall propose will be a great help. I have mentioned the trading standards officers and I shall not do so again. I welcome the Bill. I welcome the amendment on the bypass arrangement suggested by my noble friend. That will greatly help trading standards officers. It is important that that amendment and the amendment which will be proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, are supported by the Government, and I hope that they will support the amendment that I shall put forward.

7.20 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I preface my remarks with the usual caveat that, as regards Private Members' Bills, we in the Labour Party do not take an official view. Therefore, anything that I say is a personal view and should not be taken to represent the views of my party.

I recognise from the outset that the Bill so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, has been welcomed by all subsequent speakers. But it would be wrong for me to attempt to conceal the fact that when the original legislation was put forward—indeed the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has reminded us of this—my noble friends Lord Houghton of Sowerby and Lord Jenkins of Putney and I gave a great deal of grief to the then Minister on the Front Bench, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to my noble friend Lord Mishcon on the Labour Front Bench and above all to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, who introduced the measure with his customary courtesy and consideration. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in wishing the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, well and wishing that he could be with us today.

However, I have not changed my position about the original Act. I still believe that we should no more censor videos going into private homes than we should censor books going into private homes. I believe that that is the stage at which censorship should stop. The protection of children, just like the protection of the wives and servants of those who read Lady Chatterley's Lover, can be dealt with by other means. Certainly there should be a prohibition on illegal acts being shown in videos, but I still believe that censorship of the type which is exercised by the British Board of Film Classification is wrong.

It is an Orwellian thought that we started with the British Board of Film Censors, which in fact was a classificatory body because it had no power of censorship. It could not say that something should not be shown at all, and there was a quite separate system of local authority classification. When it ceased to become a classification body, it ceased to be called the British Board of Film Censors. It became a censorship body and was then called the British Board of Film Classification.

I recognise that the British Board of Film Classification in fact classifies 99 per cent. of all the films shown to it. That is because everybody knows that it is a censorship body and if they have any sense they do not submit videos to it which would he banned. However, I have said all I have to say about the original Act. The Act is there. It achieved the support of Parliament. We have been told by noble Lords —and I have no reason to disbelieve them—that there has been no libertarian outcry against it since it was passed.

As regards the Bill, we must judge the Bill and each amendment case by case. In introducing the Bill the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, made a clear and well-informed case for his amendments. It is right that once legislation has been approved by Parliament it should be effective. If the effect of the noble Lord's amendments is agreed by all to be an improvement without changing the original intention of the Bill, no doubt those amendments to the original Act should be carried. The same applies to the amendments to be moved by my noble friends Lady Fisher of Rednal and Lord Merlyn-Rees. They are clearly tidying-up amendments to improve the operation of the Act.

I am rather more nervous about the amendments to be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, if he carries out his promise or threat, whichever it may be. He admitted that he was taking advantage of the fact that the Long Title of the Bill simply states that the Bill is to amend the Video Recordings Act. Therefore, any amendment which amends the Act is in order. It sounded to me—I shall suspend final judgment until I see the amendments and hear his arguments for them—as though he was arguing for a considerable extension of the scope of the Act. If so, I hope that the House will feel that a Private Member's Bill of this kind, which is put forward with some justification as being an uncontroversial tidying up of legislation, should not result in a considerable extension to the scope of original legislation. We must wait to see the force and thrust of the amendments to be moved by the noble Lord.

Legislation which has been passed and which has achieved the support of Parliament clearly must be effective. To that extent, we cannot oppose the Bill as it stands. Our personal views about the original Act may be as strong, and, indeed, in my case are as strong, as they ever were but that should not cloud our judgment about the individual amendments.

7.25 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am happy to welcome the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, on behalf of the Government. I am sure your Lordships will agree that we owe a debt to him, not only for his work in introducing this Bill but also for his explanation as one closely involved in the way in which the present system of control over video recordings operates.

The Video Recordings Act, which itself started life as a Private Member's Bill in another place, was needed in order to stamp out the trade in so-called "video nasties" which accompanied the spread of video recorders in this country. It has largely succeeded in doing this, but there are of course always some who will persist in flouting the law, whether by supplying unclassified videos or by supplying classified videos to those who are too young to rent or purchase them.

It was in order to deal with this minority of disreputable video dealers that the Government made the enforcement of the Video Recordings Act one of the functions of local authority trading standards departments in the Criminal Justice Act 1988. But we agree that the enforcement of the law would be made still more effective by the changes proposed in this Bill.

As the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, has explained, the Bill does not alter the system of video classification nor the offences established by the 1984 Act. It simply extends the time limit for commencing proceedings in order to bring it into line with other trading standards and consumer protection legislation. It also simplifies the arrangements by which the British Board of Film Classification is able to give evidence by certificate, and to assist it in that it introduces a system of unique titles for video works.

As my noble friend Lord Elton said, we all miss the presence of my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford. I know that all your Lordships will join me in wishing him well.

My noble friend Lord Elton asked me about a review of the maintenance of standards and guidelines. The Government have no reason to believe that the present arrangements are not working adequately. The Government monitor the workings of the Act continuously. However, we shall consider with the relevant bodies whether there are areas for improvement.

The noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, asked me about who is in charge and about co-ordination. Of course, the Home Office has a clear responsibility for the Act which is enforced by the police and trading standards officers, both of whom we regularly consult. We are not aware of any problem as regards interdepartmental responsibilities.

My noble friend Lord Elton and the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, asked me a number of questions about enforcement, classification and police statistics. I shall write to my noble friend on that and send a copy to other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate so that they too may have that information.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, held a contrary view, but I do not wish to go into that. However, I agree with him that we are not in favour of any amendments which would considerably extend the scope of the Act. We shall look closely at other matters. The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, and the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, asked me about a by-pass provision and due diligence. I am not unsympathetic in principle to such provisions although I am not sure whether they would be helpful or necessary in this Bill. However, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has only recently received representations on this subject from the local authorities' co-ordinating body on food and trading standards and he will give these matters further consideration before we reach the Committee stage. Once again I congratulate the noble Lord on introducing his Bill and I hope your Lordships will join me in supporting him.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken such an interest in this little Bill and indeed for the support I have been given. I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, for the Government support he has given. I am extremely interested to hear of the amendments that are to be tabled; the bypass amendment that the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, mentioned and the due diligence clause that the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, proposes to introduce.

At this stage before your Lordships meet in Committee on the Bill all I can say is that I suspect all of us would not wish to see an innocent retailer prosecuted when the villain of the piece is much further down the line and is perhaps in a different place. Equally one would not want to see an innocent retailer bereft of the proper lines of defence. The due diligence clause may be the answer to that. It will be for your Lordships to decide when they meet in Committee whether the two amendments I have mentioned effectively produce that result.

The noble Lords, Lord McIntosh of Haringey and Lord Elton, leave me in a difficult position. I am frightfully tempted to declare myself umpire and let them go 10 rounds forthwith. However, at this time of night I think your Lordships would not welcome that proposition. If I do not address myself to the matters they discussed it is not because they do not interest me and because I would not willingly discuss them at great length, but partly because they do not seem totally relevant to what is basically a nuts and bolts amendment Bill dealing with enforcement. Further, I shall not discuss them at great length because I suspect that would weary your Lordships at this hour of the night.

I shall therefore confine myself to two points to try to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Elton, somewhat. First, I must mention the decline of registered sex shops which are the only places which are allowed to have 18-hour videos. There is no doubt they have declined dramatically. As our annual report said, there is no doubt that there is pressure upon us to declare, "If there are no outlets for that, why not give the things an 18 certificate". Because there is pressure, there is absolutely no reason for us to give into it. An 18 certificate is an 18 certificate and an 18-hour classification is an 18-hour classification. The amount of supply and trading place available to those items is not our concern and should not be our concern. The pressure may exist but I hope the noble Lord will believe there is absolutely no reason why we should give into it.

That brings me to my second point which is simply that the drawing of lines which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, referred to is an immensely complicated business. I cannot pretend that every decision that the BBFC has made has met with universal approval. There will always be people who disagree with us. Indeed that is why there is a video appeals committee. However, I am absolutely certain that all the examiners at the board treat the matter with the greatest consideration and with an enormous depth of both knowledge and sensitivity. We argue and we even agonise greatly about the lines mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Whether we get that matter right or wrong is an issue that I leave to the world and to your Lordships to judge. However, that we try very hard is, I think, beyond question.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting but I want to get this matter clear. He has argued strongly that the board with great care and diligence seeks to hold the line and in the annual report there are three instances where the committee has prevented it from doing so. I believe I am right in saying that the committee is appointed by the board. I am not saying there is anything improper about that but it leads one to look at the board and the committee together and that is why I asked whether the two together should not be reviewed. Does he not agree that this is the right way to see them?

Lord Birkett

My Lords, I must be careful not to go into this in too much depth or I shall betray the promise I made to get on with this. However, the fact is that the appeals committee, whatever its composition, is entirely independent from the board. Indeed whenever it meets the board has to make a case for the certificate it has issued or not issued and the appellant, who will be the film maker or film distributor, has to make another case. The fact that in three cases so far the committee has disagreed with our classification and said we were too strict leads me to hope that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will not think we are automatically forever pushing the line downwards, as he would say, or forwards as others would say. This is a matter of constant debate. I must not speak any longer. I am not reassuring the noble Lord about the rightness of our decisions but merely about the integrity with which the board makes them. Having said that all I can properly do now is to hope that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.

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