HL Deb 15 March 1993 vol 543 cc1280-8

If a video work which is not suitable for viewing by persons who have not attained a particular age is shown in a public place, and any person under the age sees the video work, or any part of it, in the public place, then the person responsible for the showing of that video work is guilty of an offence." ").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I spoke to an amendment on this subject, but in different form, at Committee stage. During that debate I asked my noble friend the Minister whether he would be kind enough to undertake a review of the Video Recordings Act, which the Bill sets out to amend, and the Cinematograph Act. There is an interface between the two pieces of legislation through which some events which should be regulated can escape.

I thank my noble friend for the letter on the subject which he wrote to me following the Committee stage. He made clear that he thought I was asking for the two Acts of Parliament to be combined, which is an entirely different matter. I would have been content merely to write pointing out the error of his assumption had it not been for the context in which these events were taking place. The context includes the attitudes common to entertainment matters generally and programmes on the screen in particular which have now become familiar to us. It includes also the level at which video recordings are seen in this country. Perhaps I can illustrate those two matters.

The attitudes of society struck me with some force around the time I received my noble friend's letter. They were summed-up in an episode where a famous film star turned down a leading part in a film about to be made. The plot concerned a psychopath who wanted as his mistress a female whom he dismembered. He removed her arms and legs and kept her in a box. The objection of the famous film star was that the nude scenes were untasteful.

It seemed to me that the lack of outcry against the proposed film and the reasons for not taking part in it were symptomatic of a change of attitude among those who are hardened to the media to which we, who are not, ought to react. Even so, I may not have felt that it was so important were it not brought to my notice that in this country the density of video recorders is twice as high per head of population as any other European country, and that in this country £17 million a week is spent on videos.

The final point that pushed me into tabling and persevering with the amendment, though I do not intend to press it tonight, was a chance snatch of an interview that I heard one evening of a recently appointed senior BBC official—I cannot tell your Lordships who because I missed both beginning and end of the programme. He said (in the laughing way in which one normally gives away a common piece of knowledge) that no one really knows whether what one sees on the screen influences one's behaviour. Tell that to Saatchi and Saatchi, to President Clinton and, indeed, to the marines. We accept too easily statements of that sort which I know from my own experience not to be true. I know that I am influenced by what I see on the screen. I know that what I am influenced by is not always material specifically designed to have an influence.

We should not accept that what is seen on any screen may not be harmful. Neither do I believe that we should accept, as is often advanced, that producers and commentators on media material are merely reflecting life; I believe that they are leading it, and often leading it astray. That makes me feel that we must intervene in some fashion to protect young people from material which, although said to be suitable for adult viewers, is highly damaging to juvenile viewers. It is the intention of legislation to protect them from such material, but I am advised that they are not protected because it is not an offence for them to be shown it in public places to which they have gained admission by paying. This is a large and difficult area and I shall not take your Lordships into the detail. However, I am as concerned with the television lounges of hotels as I am with long distance buses and the videos shown on them. Your Lordships may feel that even hotel bedrooms, where there is unlimited access, are an area for concern.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, that I am not proposing immediate legislation on that. What I am asking for is that the Government should undertake to look at what is going on, to look at these two pieces of legislation and to see whether in fact they are effective or not. If they are not, then I would hope that, within this Parliament or the next, they would come back with a proposal to do something about it. That is a simple request. It is not an expensive one to undertake. If my noble friend can give me the small assurance that the Government will look to see whether or not the legislation is working, I will not feel inclined to come back with a perfectly drafted amendment at Third Reading and platoons of noble friends to try to force it through the Lobby. That would be a most regrettable thing to have to do. It might well imperil the future of the Bill in another place. I believe that the Government want the Bill to succeed in another place. I hope that my noble friend will extend this hospitality, courtesy or common sense in response to the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I am drawn to speak in this debate, very briefly I hope, as president of the Video Standards Council, which publishes its own guide to the Video Recordings Act. The noble Lord's amendment seeks to amend the Act, so there are two reasons—one general and one particular—which draw me to speak on the amendment. Except for his courtesy in dropping me a line to say that he intended to raise this wider issue, I would have been drawn to speak on that when I heard what he has just said. I say that for two reasons.

First, it is not as easy as all that to decide what the influence of film and video is. When I was Home Secretary I remember that one day two reports came to me. One said that violence in film and on television had a great effect as regards causing violence. The other said exactly the opposite. There was probably a third, a fourth, a fifth and a sixth view on the matter, but I had a practical example of it when, purely because of my work with the Video Standards Council, I appeared on the "Kilroy" show the other morning. Also on the show were parents and youngsters. But in particular, there were two young men from the young offenders' prison at Feltham with their excellent governor, who used to be at Long Lartin many years ago.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk asked them whether anything in the way of film or television had drawn them into the crimes for which they were sentenced, which were stealing cars and speeding round the streets at 90 miles per hour. I made a note of their response. They said that they were interested in crime through watching "Police 5", which is a programme designed to get people to report to the police any crimes that they see. If it was not "Police 5", it was "Crimewatch". Mr. Kilroy-Silk took them up on it, but they were insistent. It was not through watching the American "predator" shows. It was actually through watching the programmes designed by the BBC and the independent companies to get people to fight crime. However, those programmes made those two young men interested in crime.

Another young boy of about 11 or 12 gave his view of the situation very articulately. He said that he did not mind the "predator" films, if "predator" is the right word. He said that he knew that they were not telling the truth. What made him worried was when he saw the news because it was real life that upset him and not the stuff he saw on videos and when he went to the cinema.

On Saturday evening I was watching television with my grandchildren. I had been thinking about all this. Suddenly there was a film which was a little like the goodies and the baddies that I used to watch on a Saturday morning in the 1920s and 1930s for tuppence a time. People used to hit each other and everyone cheered. The film I saw on Saturday was most extraordinary. I looked at my grandson of seven and asked him whether he realised that those in the film were hurting each other. He said, "No, they are not hurting each other. If that crack that you hear as they hit each other was telling the truth, they would be lying flat on the ground. But they picked themselves up the next minute".

I say to noble Lords, beware of the effect of film and video, but far more important are attitudes of mind. I accept that straight away. Middle-class attitudes percolate down to what used to be called the working class, because they watch television and they watch films. I am not giving a new interpretation by saying that the middle classes are to blame for everything, but they have very curious attitudes which are unknown among working-class people. But they pick them up. Working-class people have their own problems, but that is another matter. Therefore, one cannot be sure about this whole matter.

I wish to say a few words about the amendment moved by the noble Lord. I understand that he intends to withdraw it and that his purpose in moving it is purely to initiate discussion and to get the Government to look into these matters. The amendment states: If a video work which is not suitable for viewing by persons who have not attained a particular age is shown in a public place". It is to "public place" that I wish to address my mind. What does it mean? We have this problem in the video industry. To cut down what could be a long section of a speech, arrangements are made that when excerpts of videos are shown in shops they have to be done in the form of a trailer and they have to have the classifications of "Universal" (suitable for children), "Universal" (suitable for all), "Parental Guidance", and so on even if the films that they are advertising are ones that have a much harder classification. So in any event I am not sure that "public place" is in a shop in that sense of the term. In the video industry there is a code of practice anyway. I say to the noble Lord that it would be extremely difficult in a public place. The noble Lord referred to a bus, which is extremely relevant. There is also the problem of aircraft. There the classifications are done by the British Board of Film Classification. I think that the noble Lord is going up the wrong street in trying to amend the Video Recordings Act. I suggest that he would have to amend the Cinematograph Act.

Lord Elton

My Lords, that was exactly my intention when I spoke to the noble Lord. He was probably thinking so carefully about what he was going to say that he did not catch what I said. I hope that the two Acts can be reviewed together and that the Government decide which to amend.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I am happy to say that I know very little about the Cinematograph Act and that what the noble Lord said may well be the case. Even there the question is of policing the matter. That is one of the difficulties with it all. I welcome the chance to broaden the discussion about the effects of violence. Anthony Hopkins and Michael Caine have said that they will not appear in certain films because they are worried about the effect that they may have. Voluntary censorship, which I suppose is what it is, is very much better than the state getting involved in censorship. That has never worked properly in any part of the world. What we do now with the British Board of Film Classification raises problems from time to time but it is the best way of proceeding.

I counsel the noble Lord: get information by all means but it is not a subject which lends itself to clear views at the end of any analysis. No one will ever be able to say that one kind of film causes violence and that another does not. The two young prisoners in Feltham taught me a lesson the other day. People with good intentions have driven two people to crime.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, has saved me a good deal of time in what I was going to say on the subject simply because he referred to the Video Standards Council. It may be some reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that, by and large, in what we think of as public places, the code of practice is strictly followed. That is to say, nothing is on view in video shops in any of the main places which is classified other than U or PG, whether a trailer or a whole film. However, if there are exceptions such as long-distance coaches or hotel lobbies where somehow certain things are getting through the net, they are matters which are a little outside the control of the Video Standards Council. If there are such matters, then I welcome the noble Lord's inquiry of the Government as to whether they will look into the matter because I would be as worried as he is.

I shall not comment further on the general points which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, put before the House this evening, except to say that I am extremely obliged to him for his courtesy to me and his anxiety for this Bill which I too hope will go through both your Lordships' House and another place. I am much obliged for his consideration.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we have had a very interesting Second Reading debate this evening. It was not even a Second Reading debate on this Bill but on the original Video Recordings Bill 1984. My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees in particular has raised the issue of the possible effects on people's behaviour of sex and violence on the screen. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said that he is influenced, but I do not believe that he is influenced to the extent of committing sexual or violent crimes when he sees such behaviour on the screen. I am reminded by my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees that President Eisenhower set up a presidential commission on pornography in the late 1950s. Evidence was given which was widely accepted at the time that there was really no identifiable effect of pornography causing sex crimes. It might have had the effect of causing more sex; but sex of itself is not a crime. Another presidential commission was set up which produced the opposite result, confirming the advice given to my noble friend when he was Home Secretary.

I am worried about the amendment because it is fatally imprecise in a number of ways. It is imprecise in the use of the word "suitable" for a person of a particular age. There are perfectly good definitions of "suitable" both in the Act and in the Bill. The amendment is fatally imprecise when it refers to a "public place". If the noble Lord, Lord Elton, believes that an hotel bedroom is a public place, then I am worried about the intrusion which would be implicit in an amendment of this kind. I am very pleased to note that he is not going to press it.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I wish very briefly to support my noble friend Lord Elton in his amendment in general terms. I fully understand that it may be difficult to find the correct words. He has hinted that the words which he has found for the amendment are not entirely suitable. The worry which has been expressed in recent weeks about violence and its effect on young children is as widespread, as we all realise. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, that no one can be sure precisely what the effect of violence shown in videos and on television screens can be on children. Material going through the eye as well as through the ear does, I believe we all agree, have a much more subtly pervasive, insidious effect which no one has resolved in terms of understanding from it which aspects are thoroughly detrimental. We are in the position of not knowing how the issue can be proved one way or the other.

One thing which is almost certain to have a deleterious effect is the much greater number of close-ups of particularly violent issues. The blood and gore which are inevitably seen in some of the films is horrific. I wonder whether the rather more distant shots of less violent crime which leave a certain amount to the imagination, would have rather less effect than some films on those who are continually seeing such films today. Having said that, it is too easy on an aircraft, for example, to be subjected to violence which one had not anticipated from looking at the title and the short description of the film.

I believe that the practical problems which have been raised in defining what my noble friend seeks to do, and in a watertight way, are very real. I cannot believe that it is beyond the wit of man to devise some kind of amendment which fits my noble friend's anxieties. These are extremely complex issues; but, like my noble friend, I very much hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench, Lord Astor, will be able to offer some hope.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Elton in his request to the Government to look at this issue. It is important and it is something which needs to be kept continually under review. The noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, was spot on when he said that it is all a question of attitude. For the two young prisoners the effect was as stated; but for another two, the result might be entirely different. It depends so much on the make-up of the person who is watching television. Therefore, I strongly support the plea of my noble friend Lord Elton.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, those of your Lordships who attended the Committee stage of this Bill will be familiar with the amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, and I explained then, our current laws already adequately regulate the exhibition of films and videos in public places. Your Lordships will recall that in most cases such exhibitions are subject to the controls in the Cinemas Act 1985 which require premises other than private dwellings which are to be used for such exhibitions, to be licensed and permits local authorities to impose restrictions on the age of those who may be admitted.

Where a public exhibition of a video could take place in circumstances which fell outside the scope of the Cinemas Act 1985, such an exhibition would nevertheless be subject to the provisions of the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981 which, subject to a few exceptions, makes it a criminal offence to display indecent matter in a public place or where it can be seen from a public place. Such exhibitions would also be subject to the provisions of the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988 which make it an offence to infringe a copyright owner's rights by the unauthorised public exhibition of a film or sound recording.

The Government are generally satisfied with the present operation of the Cinemas Act—and beyond the extent to which we view the amendments contained in this Bill as necessary—the Video Recordings Act 1984. The Government recognise and indeed share the anxieties of my noble friend Lord Elton about the exposure of young people to unsuitable violent material and the possible effects that such material could have on the young mind. We do not perceive that there is a gap in the law in this area which remains to be filled. We do not have evidence that either of the two Acts are not working; no evidence has been presented to us.

Of course we shall look to see whether there is any evidence of that. I cannot promise a full review of both Acts to my noble friend. If there were a significant problem justifying legislation—as I said, I am not aware of any wide-scale anxiety on this matter—it would probably be necessary to introduce some specific provisions in a more suitable measure than this present Bill which deals specifically with video recordings. I know that that assurance does not go all the way which my noble friend would wish. As I have said, we shall look to see if there is any evidence, and we shall look closely at any evidence which is presented to us.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, perhaps I may make an offer. The Video Standards Council collects a good deal of information. It is reported to us and to our consultative committee which has the assistance of the Mothers' Union, Church bodies and boys' clubs to call on. We could make that information available to the excellent department at the Home Office. We already have a great deal of what the noble Lord is asking for.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. Perhaps I should start at the beginning and ask the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, and, going a bit further on, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, to pay attention to a case that is currently being tried and about which we cannot therefore make judgments, but in which it is argued that the people accused of tying a couple together, putting them in a motor car and pushing them over a cliff did so immediately after seeing a film in which a couple were tied together, put in a motor car, and pushed over a cliff. Noble Lords might find that case interesting and the judgement, when it comes, may be relevant, but we shall not know whether the film was a contributory factor until then.

We dealt with shops last time in Committee. This amendment refers only to "public places", entry to which has been paid for. As to the question of "suitable", I thought that in a probing amendment it was not necessary to state "classified for a different age group" but if I had thought so, I should have come to that on Third Reading. I do not think that a hotel bedroom is a "public place" although surveillance techniques are such nowadays that they may very well soon be classified as such.

The noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, said that it was all very difficult, but if one sees one's family standing in front of a building which is about to fall down, one does not say that it is very difficult to see how one can prop it up, one either props it up or takes one's family away from the danger. That is the kind of situation that we are now in. I am therefore most grateful to my noble friend the Minister for saying that he will look for evidence. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, will enable some of it to be presented; but I trust that my noble friend will not feel that that exonerates him from further efforts. I trust that it will be a serious search for evidence. If such evidence is forthcoming, I should be glad to share it and wonder whether the noble Lord will then entertain the question of whether legislation is necessary.

In those circumstances, I am glad to beg leave to withdraw my amendment. Perhaps the noble Lord will write to me if he wishes to amplify what he has already said.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.30 p.m.

Clause 1 [Titles to be assigned to video works for identification purposes]:

Lord Birkett moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 17, leave out ("submitted") and insert ("determined to be suitable").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a very small and technical amendment. Your Lordships will recall that one of the purposes of this Bill is to establish a unique title to every video work. That title is not merely the title, but also a number. This is to help the giving of evidence in the case of prosecutions which at the moment is immensely complicated and which will be vastly simplified by this small device.

It is perfectly clear to me that the title must be the title under which the film or video was given its certificate. Indeed, I had thought that my amendment made that clear. At the moment, Clause 1(2) (a) refers to, the title under which the video work was submitted". The Marshalled List has a misprint. It states "substituted", but it should read "submitted" because that is how the Bill stands at the moment. I had sought to amend the clause to read "determined to be suitable"—in other words, at the moment that the film gets its certificate. I thought that that achieved my' end rather neatly. I am advised, however, that not all legal opinion agrees with this. Unless your Lordships are wholly and entirely content to take the amendment as it stands, I shall obtain some more legal opinion in support, I hope, of what I am saying. I thought that I would explain the position to your Lordships now even if I have to withdraw the amendment in a moment. I beg to move.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is sensible that classified videos should be assigned a unique title and that this title should consist of the name of the video concerned together with a registration number. I believe that it is also agreed that the name should be that which the film company concerned wishes the video to be known by at the time when the classification certificate comes to be issued and not any earlier, variant or provisional title which may have been changed or corrected.

Therefore, the question before your Lordships is how that desirable outcome is to be achieved by the wording of the Bill. It may be that the fear which underlies the noble Lords's amendment is that the courts will, for some reason, infer that the word "first" should be inserted before the word "submitted" in the proposed new subsection (1A) (a). However, it is most unlikely that such a construction would be placed on the words.

I am no expert in technical drafting matters such as this, but I am assured by those who are that the current wording of the Bill achieves exactly what is necessary. I have been referred to the existing Section (4) (3) of the Video Recordings Act 1984 which also speaks of a video work having been submitted in a context. The granting of a right of appeal clearly demands that this should relate to a video work in its final state at the time when the board makes its final decision and not to some preliminary version of the work which may first have been submitted and subsequently altered.

I hope that that will provide some explanation for the noble Lord, Lord Birkett. I realise that he may have had different legal advice from that which I have received. It is a complicated point. If the noble Lord wishes to write to me with an explanation of his legal advice, I shall certainly look at it before Third Reading. I cannot give any commitment to go any further at the moment because, as I have said, we feel that the current drafting is satisfactory.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Viscount. It may be that I am seeking belt and braces. I should like to give myself the chance to persuade the noble Viscount of my case by Third Reading so, if your Lordships will agree, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal moved Amendment No. 3: After Clause 5, insert the following new clause: