HL Deb 15 March 1993 vol 543 cc1289-94

15A. Where the commission by any person of an offence under this Act is due to the act or default of some other person that other person shall be guilty of the offence, and a person may be charged with and convicted of the offence by virtue of this section whether or not proceedings are taken against the first-mentioned person." ")

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, those of your Lordships who have considered the Bill previously in Committee know that I am the vice-president of the Institute of Trading Standards Administration. I speak on behalf of trading standards officers tonight. Enforcing the Video Recordings Act is but one of the many responsibilities of the officers of the Institute of Trading Standards Administration. I know that there has been long and bitter disappointment at the fact that the proper operation of the controls has been hampered by the shortcomings of the original Act. Trading standards officers have felt all along the line that they face serious difficulties. Therefore, while very much welcoming the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, they feel that it needs strengthening by the bypass procedure.

As noble Lords will know, local trading standards officers and their departments can operate only within their own legal boundaries—that is, within the administrative boundaries of their counties or localities. It is unfortunate that the Minister has not been satisfied that the bypass procedure, which could be used, should be incorporated in this legislation.

The Minister's reply to me in Committee suggested that if an investigation stretched across many local authority areas and was of sufficient seriousness, he expected the local authority trading standards officers to pass the matter to the police. I suggest to the noble Viscount that the role of the police is to deal with serious crime. I do not know whether the Minister has seen the exhibition which the police mounted in Westminster Hall a week or two ago which showed what I suppose one would call filth of the worst nature over which the police wanted to keep tight control. When I spoke to one of the officers, he did not think that this was a priority for them because they would rather go for what they might call the "hard sell".

As I have said, the role of the police is to deal with what we call serious crime, and not to deal regularly with potential offences under the Video Recordings Act, as those matters are generally a breakdown of trade in the community and this is an area in which trading standards officers have unparalleled enforcement expertise. Trading standards departments would call upon the assistance of the police if any matter under their investigation was of sufficient seriousness.

I remind the Minister that there is good co-operation between trading standards departments and the police. They work extremely well together. One would not like to feel that there is any suggestion at all that the trading standards authorities want to take over the role of the police. That is not the intention of the bypass provision. It is no business of trading standards officers to want to encroach upon the real role of the police.

The measure is designed to make more effective use of the scarce resources available to trading standards departments, the courts and businesses. I am sure that the Minister will echo, as do all Ministers, that local authorities and the courts should watch the money that they spend. The proposed by-pass procedure will be beneficial to trading standards departments, and their local authorities, the courts and businesses. It is not just a matter of saving money, as the by-pass procedure and Amendment No. 3 would enable an authority to tackle the person who knowingly manufactures and supplies misleadingly labelled videos. In other words, it goes to the source of the problem. It is no good concentrating upon the retailer only if unclassified videos are still being produced.

There was a case within the Coventry administrative area within the past few weeks in which it was found that the videos were classified incorrectly. The charge of misdescription was brought under the Trade Descriptions Act because the videos were misdescribed. Through the Trade Descriptions Act the matter was taken to the source of the problem. That case went through the courts, and was dealt with satisfactorily. The manufacturer paid the penalty. Although the outcome was successful, penalties under the Trade Descriptions Act are much less than under the by-pass procedure proposed. Although matters are being dealt with, the penalties for those breaking the law are not as great as they should be.

The Minister sent me a four-page letter giving all the reasons why I was not doing the right thing in moving the amendment. Some of what he said was complicated. I have so far looked at five Acts of Parliament and four sections. I was disappointed by the Minister's last page on which he wrote: The Government is far from complacent about the problem of unclassified and under-age video supply. That is why we are supporting the Bill". I am supporting the Bill on behalf of trading standards officers. The Minister continued: I hope you will agree that the Bill, as it now stands, achieves a number of useful objectives". But now I come to what I felt was disappointing and not complimentary to me. The Minister wrote that, its chance of success should not be placed in doubt by being burdened with unsatisfactory amendments". That was nice! I thank the noble Viscount for that. He finishes, "Yours ever". If that is not the way to break up a romance, I do not know what is.

I was disappointed, because I do not believe that the amendment is unsatisfactory, although the Minister and his officials might think so. The measure proposed by the amendment enjoys the widespread support of the video industry, retailers and enforcement departments. Therefore, it is a little disappointing to find that the Home Office is unable to support a clause which is used by other government departments in a number of pieces of legislation. Although I shall withdraw the amendment, it is a great shame that the otherwise admirable Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, will fall short in that one respect if it becomes law.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness is aware that I am a supporter of her proposal, because I would support anything which makes for the speedy and efficient execution of the law. I believe that it is much more efficient for an authority which discovers an offence in its area to trace it to its source. That may be within the area of a less well-to-do local authority with fewer resources, which may have many other trading standards officers homing in on similar activities in its area. It is right that her amendment should be considered seriously, even though she intends to withdraw it.

The noble Baroness knows also that I am a fellow vice-president of the Institute of Trading Standards Administrators. In case anyone else should not do so—it should not be left on the record—the House will be aware that neither she, nor any of us, can speak on its behalf. We speak on our own behalf only. I know that your Lordships knew what she meant, but it is important that it should not go on record as us speaking for an interest, but only as informed by it. I am informed by the institute. I take the same view as the noble Baroness, but I speak for myself.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness is well aware that I have a good deal of sympathy with the amendment, because it is known to us at the BBFC that there are traders in this country—distributors mostly—who deliberately flout the present Act by never submitting their videos to us for classification. In some cases that may merely be avoidance, meanness or laziness. In much more important and frequent cases it is because they know full well that if they submitted them they would not receive a certificate. Therefore, there is illegal and potentially dangerous material especially in the present climate—I emphasise the words "dangerous material"—circulating. In some cases there is material which has been cut or altered to achieve a classification which is being put out in the original version with the cuts restored as if we had taken no trouble with it whatsoever.

Procedures exist already whereby such people can be prosecuted. In many cases they are not. It is not the fault of the trading standards officers who in many cases have discovered and reported upon them. It is because the prosecution mechanism in various parts of the country where such people operate is not being enforced. It does not go into action. If that is the position, and I am advised that it is widespread, there may not be many of what I call the villains of the piece, but the amount of material going around the country is considerable.

If a by-pass amendment is not deemed legally suitable—if the amendment moved by the noble Baroness is not the right one—but there is a mechanism which already exists that can be invoked, then my question to the Minister is: how do we go about ensuring that it is invoked? If the evil of which I speak can be cured, I shall be happy. Whether it is cured with or without the help of my Bill is of no concern to me. The fact that it is cured is what interests me. It is upon that question that I look to the Government to give me some reassurance.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I listened to the debate in Committee; I have read my noble friend's letter to the Minister; I have read the Minister's four-page reply; I have listened to this evening's debate; and I am bound to say that I do not believe the reply given by the Minister so far has addressed the issue raised by my noble friend. She gave a clear example of the case in Coventry where the original supplier was chased from Coventry—if I may put it that way—and caught under the Trade Descriptions Act rather than the Video Recordings Act. She pointed out that the penalties available under the Trade Descriptions Act are less than the penalties available under the Video Recordings Act.

That was made clear to the Minister when my noble friend wrote to him. If it is the case, why cannot the Video Recordings Act be amended in such a way as to provide the same protection as is provided by the Trades Description Act? I assume that the basic job of trading standards officers is to work in their own areas, but, if in order to work effectively in their own areas they have to go outside them, then surely they should be able to do so. That is what I take to be the purpose of a by-pass amendment. I am not qualified to judge the wording of the amendment. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, that the Government have an obligation to come back to the House on Third Reading with an amendment which will work and which will address the problem which has been raised.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I listened with great care to the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, my noble friend and other noble Lords. I fully accept that the aim of the proponents of this change is to achieve a more effective enforcement of the Video Recordings Act by the trading standards authorities. We all share that aim; indeed, all the provisions in the Bill have that as their objective. However, I must tell the House that the Government remain of the view that the amendment is undesirable in principle and that, for technical legal reasons, it would not work in practice.

I know that there are varying views about the suitability of the drafting of this amendment in the special context of the Video Recordings Act. I do not think that it would be profitable to enter into a complicated legal debate. However, I would inform your Lordships that since the Committee stage the Government have carefully considered the matter further in the light of what was said then and have taken into account the letters sent by the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher. We have also discussed the issues again with representatives of the local authority trading standards departments.

Nothing emerged from that further consideration which would lead us to change our view that while such a bypass provision may well be of value in the Trade Descriptions Act and similar consumer-related legislation it simply will not work in the context of the Video Recordings Act with its very different offence formulations and statutory defences. In short, the amendment would not only fail to achieve its desired results but, because of the doubts which it could well cast on existing aspects of the Act, its effect could be positively harmful. That, I am sure, is something which your Lordships would wish to avoid. For that reason I stated in my letter that the amendment was unsatisfactory: I implied no personal criticism of drafting powers and expertise.

The Government are not persuaded either that the same objective should be achieved by other means; for instance, a specific provision to the effect that a trading standards officer's powers under the Video Recordings Act in this area are not territorially limited and that magistrates' courts could try offences against the Act committed outside their area. Such a provision would be most unusual and would not be justified in the limited context of Video Recordings Act offences where, for instance, each unlawful act of supply, whether by a wholesaler or a retailer, represents a separate offence which can be investigated and tried in the location where it took place. It is the Government's view that where there is an extended network of supply the appropriate way of investigating it is by close co-operation between differing trading standards authorities.

The fact that the trading standards officers have shared their anxieties with the noble Baroness indicates the measure of their views about the problem. I am sure, therefore, that they will co-operate closely in the investigations. The police are an enforcement agency for the Video Recordings Act and many cases of unlawful supply will raise issues of obscenity which the police will wish to investigate. Video offences are serious with fines up to £20,000.

As the noble Baroness said, I wrote to her in detail trying to be helpful and giving her a full explanation of our view. I hope she understands that while we commend her efforts to improve the Bill, admire her persistence and, indeed, have considerable sympathy with her in respect of her anxieties on this issue the Government cannot recommend acceptance of the amendment for the genuine reasons that I have explained tonight.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, perhaps I may ask that his officers should consider the fact that most of the recordings are made in the London area. Most trading standards authorities in the London area are small local authorities and have little finance. It is usually the case that the larger local authorities in the counties have more resources at their disposal. Although the London authorities would like to help more often than not they are unable financially to pursue many of the cases which are brought to their attention. For that reason, help should be given to the London authorities to enable them to put into effect the provisions we are discussing. I feel sure that local government will not receive any more money, so we shall be back at square one if nothing is done.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, as I said, we have considered the matter carefully and have had meetings with various people. Of course, finance is always a factor to be taken into account. It is for local authorities and not for the Government to decide the financial resources which their trading standard officers should have. I understand the noble Baroness's anxieties but I hope that I have explained the two separate reasons why the Government cannot agree to her amendment. We greatly sympathise with her anxieties but believe that if and when the Bill becomes an Act trading standards officers will have the advantage of working closely in their investigations, which will be helpful in achieving results.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure for the few minutes which remain until eight o'clock.

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

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.57 to 8 p.m.]