HL Deb 09 February 1998 vol 585 cc936-55

7.55 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy rose to move, That this House take note of the proposal to appoint Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith as a designated authority under Section 4(4) of the Video Recordings Act 1984, in accordance with the proposal laid before the House on 18th December 1997.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall explain the terms of the Motion. Under the 1984 Act the letter of appointment must lie on the Table of this House for 40 days. That period expires in a few days' time. It provides a rare opportunity for the House to consider how present arrangements in this field have been working. I should make it clear at the outset that I have no objection to the appointment of Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith and I wish him well. There is no time limit on this debate. We have been fortunate in being allotted the dinner break rather than the middle of the night. I hope that other speakers will tailor the length of their speeches accordingly so that we do not appear to misuse the time made available.

I shall concentrate on one matter, the computer game, Grand Theft Auto, as it is setting an alarming precedent. I first raised this in May last year in an oral Question when there had been reports that the game might be imported. In reply the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, pointed out that because of its nature it would have to be submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, known in earlier days as the British Board of Film Censors. Towards the end of the year I heard that an 18 certificate had been awarded and I tabled further Questions. In sympathetic and courteous replies the noble Lord, Lord Williams, seemed to share my concern, drawing attention to the maximum penalties for supplying this game to someone under the age of 18—six months in prison or a £5,000 fine.

My worry is that the game presents the crime of stealing cars, and the associated offences, as normal pastimes adding an element of glamour too. This is especially unfortunate in Britain at this time. As your Lordships will know, there is too much car crime in this country and we have had the worst record in western Europe in recent years. The millions of car owners and their families are divided into two categories. The first is the large section who have had their cars stolen or broken into; the second consists of the remainder who are apprehensive about when their cars are to be stolen or attacked. The owners of vehicles in Britain may not yet recognise what a damaging disservice this game is inflicting upon them, although I understand that the motoring organisations do.

How is the game played? A detailed description appeared in the January issue of the magazine Playstation; the cover of which advertised the game with the slogan in capitals, "CRIME DOES PAY". To start playing you have to steal at least one vehicle, mugging the driver if necessary. You then embark on criminal missions including blowing up buildings—that is especially unfortunate in view of IRA atrocities of that kind—ferrying drugs, killing pedestrians and driving recklessly to escape from police chases.

The magazine asks prominently, "What would you like to steal today?" Regrettably there has already been a culture among some young people of stealing cars, or from cars, and of joy-riding often ending in death or injury as well as damage to property—and of course without licences or insurance. Several criminal offences are committed within that kind of "prank"; and appearing to glorify those activities is a damaging blow to law and order. The game is staged in three cities. One of them is named "San Andreas", and I hope that the Home Secretary and Mr. Whittam Smith have noted that infelicitous appellation.

The Government are limited in what they can do. The Classification Board does not operate under statutory authority for films; and final decisions as regards films are taken by local licensing authorities. For videos, however—and computer games are included in that category—the 1984 Act has given the board statutory functions. The board is designated by the Home Secretary as the authority to classify them.

The board is entirely independent of the Government and was originally established in co-operation with the film industry. Financially it does not receive subventions from the Government or the film industry, meeting its costs from fees for its classification work.

In the past the board's main concerns have been with sex and violence. That was to be expected in vetting films and videos for viewing. The public would be spectators, perhaps voyeurs. Computer games are different. Members of the public who play them become participants. They operate the controls and in this game are invited to carry out the criminal offences. They are not simply viewers of a video that shows a film.

I have already mentioned some of the crimes included in this game. Some involve violence; some do not. I do not think that there is any sex! However, a car can be stolen, and driven at high speed without licence or insurance, and with no violence other than minor damage to the lock, unless of course the escapade ends in a crash or accident. With such participant games, more emphasis now needs to be placed on criminal actions unconnected with sex or violence.

Classification is not working as intended. Very few adults will have been playing Grand Theft Auto. Very few adults know how to operate the consoles in which the game is staged. It is not feasible to arrest or charge parents for lack of responsibility inside their homes.

The Classification Board, in its latest report, recorded that a survey by the Policy Studies Institute confirmed the easy accessibility of 18 certificate videos to children; and that less rigour was exercised in video shops than in cinemas, and little rigour, if any, in homes. The hoard also reported that video games had become much more violent.

The board took exception to one video game before Grand Theft Auto had appeared on the scene, and I commend its action. It was called Car-mageddon, and to score points a player had to run over pedestrians. The board characterised it as "killing for kicks". However, that game, somewhat amended, was then released without a board certificate of any kind but with a voluntary industry "rating" of 15. The appeals procedure, although independent, seems unsatisfactory because it is one-sided. Only the manufacturers or agents can appeal, not the public or organisations objecting to a product or its classification.

Proving the report's point on availability to teenagers, the Sunday Times on 4th January reported that one of its reporters accompanied a 15 year-old and an 11 year-old visiting several shops where the 15 year-old was sold all the 18 certificate games he asked for, including Grand Theft Auto, and the 11 year-old was refused in only two shops. That was despite the penalties for supplying them to under-18s.

The promoters of Grand Theft Auto have expressed opinions: that the game is simply a bit of fun, a lark and a laugh. I believe that that view is misplaced in the context that I am describing. I do not suggest that every teenager who plays will be adversely affected. However, if only a fraction, perhaps one-tenth, are influenced, this will be undoing the work in which some of us, in Parliament and outside, have been engaged to reduce car crime. In that connection, the British section of the European Secure Vehicle Alliance, chaired by my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux, has made a significant contribution.

In future, when citizens find that their cars have been stolen and driven around, with damage done, or injury, they can attribute some of the blame to this computer game; likewise when their motor insurance premiums are increased.

I recognise that the Government are not empowered to do much because of the statutory situation and the financial independence of the board in what is a self-regulating system. The Government want to be tough not only on crime but also on the causes of crime. For that, anticipation and prevention are necessary. I have noted the recently announced Home Office scheme for young offenders before they leave prison. It is even more important to protect young people in the first place before they drift into becoming offenders. They should certainly not be led into thinking that stealing is an acceptable pastime, together with the other criminal offences.

Of course cars are stolen or broken into by adult criminals as well as by young people. It is a cause of dismay to me when young people are tempted and slide into car crime. I have had personal experiences. On one occasion in Scotland when my car was stolen overnight from a public car park, the police retrieved it, damaged, some days later, from a gang of 15 and 16 year-olds. On another occasion in London, close to these Houses of Parliament, the side glass was smashed, in daytime, and my overnight bag stolen. Passers-by saw the two culprits, boys of about 15, and chased them. The two got away, distributing the contents of my bag on the pavement as they ran, while trying to find something of value. The Westminster police later told me that there was an increase in such incidents at that time of year as it was the half-term break for schools—a very sad reflection, I suggest, upon our times. In both cases my vehicles were small, two-door cars especially adapted for me as a disabled driver, as I have been partially disabled since World War II. I should point out that disabled people are acutely deprived without a serviceable car when they are dependent upon wheels to take the place of their legs. Youths who start committing car crimes like that can slide later into housebreaking and burglary.

Before concluding, I should like to make a particular suggestion. Because computer games are very different from films, and from videos that involve viewing and not taking part, they should be in a separate category of their own. I suspect that provision was not made fully for games in the 1984 Act because such games were then in their infancy. I accept that such a change may take time and realise that primary legislation may be needed. I hope that the opportunity will be taken the next time a suitable Bill is being prepared. In the meantime, I trust that Mr. Whittam Smith, the new chairman of the board, will respond to the changing situation. I wish him all success. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House take note of the proposal to appoint Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith as a designated authority under Section 4(4) of the Video Recordings Act 1984, in accordance with the proposal laid before the House on 18th December 1997.—(Lord Campbell of Croy.)

8.10 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I entirely

concur with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Home Office Minister who will reply to the debate, knows that we had correspondence last year on the subject of computer games involving the type of cases that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, has drawn to the attention of the House. There will be an opportunity during debate on the Crime and Disorder Bill, as I shall outline in a few moments, to address the sorts of points that the noble Lord so properly raised.

At the outset let me make three points. First, when Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith was appointed as president of the British Board of Film Classification I publicly welcomed his appointment, and I do so again this evening. He is a likeable, decent man, and will bring commitment and thoughtfulness to his work.

But the laying of this letter of designation under the terms of Section 5 of the Video Recordings Act 1984 gives the House a rare chance to reflect on the workings of the British Board of Film Classification and to comment on the circumstances on which Mr. Whittam Smith will endeavour to undertake his new duties.

Thirdly, although there is precedent for the will of the House to be tested, it is not my wish to divide your Lordships' House. Amendment No. 270 to Clause 87 of the Crime and Disorder Bill, tabled by myself and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will provide the opportunity to test opinion, should that prove necessary. In the best traditions of the film industry, tonight's brief debate acts more as a trailer for what is coming shortly.

Our debate also has something of the air of unfinished business about it. Five years ago, in the aftermath of the death in Liverpool of a two year-old boy, James Bulger, the trial judge commented on the possible effect of video violence on the two boys who had murdered him. Before James's death I had taken cross-party initiatives in another place, seeking both tighter curbs on the video industry and greater protection for children. After a battle with the then Home Secretary, Mr. Michael Howard, but with a broad base of support—ranging from Mr. Ken Livingstone, Miss Clare Short, and Mr. Gerald Kaufman on one side, to 12 former Conservative Ministers on the other—oamendments were duly incorporated into the 1994 criminal justice Act. I recognise that in the present Home Secretary, Mr. Jack Straw, we have a Secretary of State who is alive to these issues and who is keen to get to the root of violence in contemporary society. I therefore have no doubt that Ministers in the Home Office will take these matters very seriously.

Five years ago, one of my chief concerns was the lack of public accountability of the British Board of Film Classification. That is the matter to which we return tonight, because it was left largely in abeyance. The then Home Secretary said that members of the public aggrieved by a decision of the BBFC could simply seek judicial review in the courts.

When, in 1996, the board allowed "Natural Born Killers" to be released on video for home viewing, a gutsy young woman, Yvonne Hutchinson, of Bradford, did indeed try to challenge the board. For a single mother without the infinite resources of the industry, it proved an impossibility. The recourse to law is not worth the paper it is written on. The industry knows that, and would prefer to keep it that way.

Section 4 of the Video Recordings Act 1984 charges the Secretary of State with the responsibility for ensuring that adequate arrangements are made for appeal against classification decisions. The procedure for appeals is laid out in a previous letter of designation. However, the 1984 Act requires only that provision be made for appeals by those submitting video works for classification. That makes the appeals system extremely one-sided and biased in favour of film, video and computer game producers. For example, although the BBFC recently refused to grant a certificate to the gratuitously violent computer game, "Carmageddon"— which, as we have heard, involves a driver playing a computer game which lets the driver run down, yes, defenceless pedestrians, the blind, and animals—the manufacturers were able to appeal and overturn the decision, despite the protests of groups such as the Automobile Association, which had no way of formally voicing their concerns. Other groups, such as the NSPCC, fall into the same category. On that occasion, even James Ferman, the director of the BBFC, attacked the U-turn, saying that the game featured "gross violence".

It is my understanding that the mechanism for appeals could be expanded in the letter of resignation to allow others to appeal against the BBFC's classification decisions. That could also be done through primary legislation and with cross-party support. That is why the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and I have tabled the amendment to which I referred. It would require the Home Secretary to give others a right of appeal against the BBFC's decisions, in addition to the right that the film and computer games industries already enjoy. That would not give everyone carte blanche to appeal against any decision that the BBFC makes. Appeals could be made only on the grounds that the video work might incite viewers to antisocial behaviour, crime or disorder. The conditions under which an appeal would be made would also be set out by the Home Secretary in the letter of designation.

At the moment the only way in which an ordinary member of the public can appeal against a classification decision is through a judicial review, which is extremely costly and expensive for all those concerned, in terms of both time and money. Unless we change these things, Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith will continue to head up a board where monied interests can talk but children's interests are stifled. How can that be fair or right?

This is not a trivial matter. Let us consider the violent society in which we live and the violent culture in which our children are being reared. Violence in Britain and in America—where it is considerably worse—has become gratuitous and random. It is ingrained into the very fabric of society. Violent films such as "Natural Born Killers" and "True Lies" are typical box office hits. In "True Lies", Arnold Schwarzenegger throws a meat-hook into a man's stomach; hurls a pointed instrument at his torturer which sticks in the man's eye; breaks a man's neck with his bare hands; and a driver is shot through the head and blood spatters everywhere. Gruesome, violent death, mutilation and serial killing all become an art form which can be turned on or off at the flick of a switch. Is that really what we want our young people to see?

The entertainment industry seems to be in the throes of a passionate love affair with violence, embracing it at every opportunity. We are becoming emotionally deadened by the horrors that we witness and have come to accept violence as normal.

Let us consider the effect on women. According to a study for the Broadcasting Standards Council, women's fear of male violence can be reinforced, and even increased, by watching videos and television programmes that depict violence against women.

And let us consider the effects on children. The Professional Association of Teachers spoke to 1,000 teachers in different parts of the country when my amendment to curb video violence was before Parliament four years ago. The response of teachers does not support in the least the view that children are cynical sophisticates, able to reject those aspects of the adult world for which they are not ready. One teacher said by way of reply: I am very disturbed by the totally unsuitable films and TV programmes which are available to young children. They often talk of nothing else and revel in tales of blood, cutting off of limbs, disembowelling etc. This is the norm so that children who do not have access to this material often feel they arc missing out".

Increasing numbers of parents are using videos and video games as their electronic baby-sitter, allowing children to play with the games or to see violent videos so that they will not themselves be disturbed. Many parents simply do not seem to understand the harm which inappropriate entertainment can do.

More than 90 per cent. of the PAT respondents believed that children's emotional, social and moral development is being damaged, sometimes irrevocably, by what they see. Three-quarters of teachers also believe that there is a link between over-exposure to computer games and factors such as tiredness and inattention, heightened levels of aggression and a tendency to act out fantasies.

Commenting on the link between behaviour and viewing, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, wrote a letter to me which included a speech in which he rightly asked: what proof are we looking for? Does the railway company wait for someone to be killed by a train before fencing off the railway line?".

Just before last Christmas, 27,000 people sent a petition to Parliament calling for tighter controls. The common sense of parents—which well understands that children imitate what they see—is often the best yardstick. I say to your Lordships' House, as I conclude, that the advertising industry would not have spent, as they did, £4,000 million last year on advertising their wares on television if they did not believe that what people see has an effect on those who view it. Clearly it has an enormous effect.

In challenging the letter of designation. we can take some useful steps by enhancing parental rights and strengthening the position of the public, by putting it at least on the same footing as the industry. In so doing, we will be enabling Mr. Whittam Smith to do his job more effectively. When the amendments to achieve that are considered by your Lordships' House, I hope that they will be given a fair wind.

8.20 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I wish to speak briefly on two matters. I declare an interest in that I am president of the Video Standards Council. I am not a consultant or a lobbyist. During 35 years in Parliament I have been neither and I do not intend starting now. It is because I was concerned about violence that I went to the council and I suppose that as a former Home Secretary it was thought I might be of some use to it in the work that it does. The industry sets out in an admirable way to ensure that it carries out the classification terms of the various pieces of legislation, culminating in the 1994 legislation. As a whole, the industry tries extremely hard.

I heard tonight of the problems. Occasionally, I go down to the shops and it is difficult for the assistants in video shops to tell whether a girl is 12, 17 or 18. No Act of Parliament will put that right; there are innate problems with that.

The other problem is one with which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, dealt: the issue of video games. They are in a quite different category. If one is asking for video games to be brought under the same aegis as videos, that is a different matter. We met the video games people who run a voluntary scheme. They come under the BBFC if parts of the game are a video in the normal sense of the term. It is a complicated business.

The aim of the industry is to maintain standards. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, said that there would be another occasion for discussion and this is not the time for it. I wish to suggest only one thing tonight: a better way of dealing with the issue. There is the matter of the Bulger case. God knows! it was a bad enough tale, but I do not believe that the judge made a direct connection between the Bulger murder and the boys seeing a certain video tape.

The problem of violence is real and we have touched on the difficulty with stolen cars and having one's family robbed in the street. I do not say that that is caused immediately by the children and young people having watched or played video games, or having watched a video tape. They are complicated matters and it is too easy to make a simple connection between the two.

I wish to make one suggestion. Over the weekend I have been reading the report of the British Board of Film Classification. It was late arriving. It is an annual report which makes interesting reading. It concerns the investigations that have taken place: the work undertaken; and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Birkett, is here tonight, and he was serving as acting president. He makes one point that: it is worth remembering that 1996-97, like any other year, produced a vast majority of films and videos which were uncomplicated and unproblematic. The Board sees roughly four thousand films, videos and video games every year. Most of them are aimed at a minority audience. Put all the many minority audiences together and you have contemporary British society.

What we see in contemporary British society we may not like. Sometimes I am glad that my children are well into adulthood and beyond; but I have grandchildren. What one sees on the BBC and ITV is under less control at certain times of the day than the video industry. There are means of dealing with those issues.

I received a note from Mr. Whittam Smith which states: I have asked that the 1997 annual report should be made available in April or May this year-6 to 7 months earlier than the 1996 report! If the appropriate select committees of the two houses of Parliament wished to examine the President and Vice-Presidents on the annual report. I would welcome the opportunity.

That is a much better way than having a short debate like this. No doubt it pleases us to have the chance to say something or to make a couple of amendments to another piece of legislation. A much better way is for the subject to go before a Select Committee which will bring people forward so that we can have a real discussion on the issues. That would be far more useful than amendments which will be defeated eventually by the use of the Whips. It is better to have a Select Committee investigate the matter.

There is a real problem; the solution is not as easy as many people suggest. The connections are not as simple as is made out. With the violent society in which we live, videos, films and the like are part of that society, not the cause of it—though in certain instances they might well be. I suggest to the Government—because only they can decide—that the subject is put before a Select Committee of this House. That Select Committee should question people and bring experts in and question them as well. That is a better way of doing it than a short debate of this nature.

8.25 p.m.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, I am and have been for some 12 or 13 years one of the vice-presidents of the BBFC, so I am very much concerned in this matter. I listened carefully to what the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Alton, had to say about video games. In particular, it is interesting that "Carmageddon" should have been mentioned. As noble Lords know, by and large, video games are exempt from classification by the BBFC unless they contain matters which mean they ought to be classified, such as scenes of violence.

That is exactly what happened in the case of "Carmageddon". We considered it and declined to give it a certificate in its present form. The matter then went to the appeals committee which, by, I think I am right in saying, a majority of three to two, overturned our decision. It does not behove me to complain about the appeals procedure or a higher court than mine. But that was not entirely helpful. The reason the decision was overturned was that the manufacturer of the game, like most manufacturers in these cases, maintained that the whole thing was a joke and it was not intended to be taken seriously, it was purely for fun. Of course, one can take that line even with something as potentially brutal as "Carmageddon". It was that line that triumphed in the end and it was not helpful to the case.

Nor is it helpful that young children are often able to watch videos which are classified for those over age 18. It is not so much that they can get them in the shops. In the last criminal justice legislation we brought a great deal of pressure to bear to ensure that the legislation was as tough as it could be on supplying over-18 videos to under-age youngsters. It is always easier in the cinema because a person may or may not be admitted.

The real danger is not so much in the video shops as in the home. As the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees said, in many cases there is no control whatever. Children of all ages can run games or videos for over 18s of all kinds because there is not enough parental control to stop them. I do not know how one copes with that problem, except by education.

Education is also to some extent the secret as to how children can come to terms with what they see on the screen. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, from his research in schools and among teachers, that many children do not seem to be capable of coping with what they see on the screen. I believe that one of the reasons is that they are not properly educated in the media, what the media mean, how the media work, how videos work, how films work and the nature of the animal—how videos are put together. There is a provision that all schools shall teach these things. It is part of the national curriculum. It is obligatory that media studies should be taught in schools. Last year, when we went into the matter, we were appalled to find that of all the Ofsted reports we could gather. not one commented on the subject in the schools at all, either for good or ill. Was it being done well? Was it being done at all? There was no mention of that by the Ofsted teams. We complained about that, and I hope that somehow the position can be improved. It seems to me that educating children in the media is one step, albeit a small one, towards protecting them from the more dire effects of the increase in violence.

I share with all speakers so far a distaste for an increasingly violent industry. Not by any means all of it, but certainly some parts of Hollywood have an increasing taste for violence and I regret that. The BBFC can control the violence in its wilder excesses, but it cannot control the media and the nature of film making in Hollywood, much as it would like to do so.

Reference has been made twice this evening to the Bulger case. I should remind noble Lords that in this Chamber the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in answering a debate on this subject, pointed out clearly that there is no police evidence that the video concerned was seen by the children involved. The judge made a reference to a video; it was not backed by any fact. So far as I know, there has never been a criminal prosecution for violence in this country where a video has been a major factor. Certainly it was not in the Bulger case. We asked particularly that police evidence on the subject should be repeated in this House and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, did so.

The film "Natural Born Killers" has become a much feared and in some cases a much disliked film—it is not a film that I liked. However, when considering whether or not to certificate it, there was an enormous amount of rumour that in the United States copycat killings based upon the movie were rife. Around 13 cases were quoted. The director of the BBFC took the trouble to talk to the police chiefs involved in those cases to discover whether or not there was anything in the rumour. In no case was there any evidence to suggest that. All the police chiefs in charge of those cases said that there was no connection between the film "Natural Born Killers", as a video or as a movie, and the crimes concerned. We took the greatest trouble over that because everybody is frightened of copycat killings; indeed, everybody is frightened of the effect that videos and films may have on people.

It is right that films and videos must have some effect upon their audience, otherwise, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, why would anybody put them on the screens and why would advertisers pay all that money to advertise their products if it did not have any effect? The trouble is, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, said, whatever the connection, it is not a simple one. Many people would love there to be a simple connection—violent videos, violent society; put an equals sign between them and that sorts out the matter. Unfortunately, it is infinitely more complicated than that.

A piece of research came out recently, sponsored by the Home Office, suggested by ourselves and carried out by the University of Birmingham. It takes a group of violent offenders, a group of non-violent offenders and a group of perfectly innocent students who have not been in any trouble at all and examines the difference in their reactions to violent videos and movies. The interesting conclusion of that research is that it is not so much the effect of the video; it is the effect of the family background on violent offenders which triggers further violence. They may thereafter, indeed do by a large proportion according to this research, have much more liking for violent videos than the others, but it does not seem in any case to be the trigger. It is merely a concomitant of an already violent background. It is the family background that has infinitely more effect than any video in the world.

The whole question of appeal raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is interesting. I shall consider and look at his proposals carefully; I have not seen them before. It is true that it is the industry which is allowed to appeal and it always appeals when we are either too strict or, in some cases, decide not to give a certificate at all. It is always the maker of the film who complains—and sometimes wins. On present scoring, the results are around 50-50 between those whose appeals have been successful and our decision of classification overturned and where our decision has been upheld. I like to think that, with an appeals committee, it is not too bad if one wins about half the time. If one wins all the time, it looks too autocratic and if one loses all the time, one is obviously getting it wrong. A record such as ours is nothing to be ashamed of.

I was extremely alarmed by the terms of the Motion tonight. I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Alton, say that he approved of Andreas Whittam Smith. I met him and he seems to be an amazingly good choice; he is an extremely civilised man. I add my wishes to those noble Lords who have spoken for his continuing success and good fortune in the BBFC.

8.36 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for thinking up such an ingenious device to get us here this evening and providing the momentum for what has been, unexpectedly so, a fascinating debate. I expected to disagree with some people quite violently. I have learnt a great deal and agreed with much of what each speaker said.

The debate is running somewhat wider than I expected. I too am glad that Mr. Whittam Smith is not the target of any criticism. He seems to have been widely received. I have not had the pleasure of knowing him personally, but I understand from Mr. Ferman and now confirmed by the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, that he is a highly suitable candidate to replace the noble Earl, Lord Harewood, in that position.

The question of video games, as has been said, is a complicated one. When we discussed these matters in 1984 the video game was in its infancy, if it had even been conceived. I do not remember it forming part of our discussions at all at that time. The games are extremely worrying where violence is concerned. As the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, explained, the British Board of Film Classification only comes into play when an element of the game falls within its remit.

The whole matter of influence on children is important. I have a child under the age of 10 and am much concerned. I have older children who have been through the whole process of being bullied by me into going out into the garden rather than watching television, and into being made to read, some with more success than others. With my six year-old I am more concerned at the moment about comic strips than anything else. I notice with him—it was the same with me as I recall—that he is more disturbed by real events. Perhaps that is an indication—I hope so—of his good adjustment in life. I too was more disturbed by real events than fictional events depicted in a violent manner.

I recall that when I was young I saw several films which disturbed me a great deal. But nothing disturbed me as much as seeing a real fight in the street at the age of six or drunks in the street attacking each other. Perhaps the distinction between reality and fiction has been blurred. There is certainly more violence available in fiction today to all of us, let alone to young children, than was available when I was young and probably more than there was 10 or 15 years ago.

I return to the subject of the British Board of Film Classification which interests and concerns me. I have had several discussions with Mr. Ferman over the years because I have an interest in these matters. I have found him at all times to he a stimulating, interesting, responsible and helpful person to deal with. However, I have not always agreed with him. I went to see him in relation to the classification of a film which I felt should not have been given a "15" classification and he kindly asked me to lunch to discuss the matter. My concern was not that it was violent for adults but that it was violent for 15 year-olds and certainly for those under that age. I shall not mention the name of the film because I doubt whether any of your Lordships saw it but it involved a good deal of violence in prison by prison warders on offenders, homosexual attacks and the like.

I found great difficulty with his answer but he said it with the utmost sincerity. I think it has a great deal to do with the misunderstandings that can occur between a body like the British Board of Film Classification and interested parties, whether government or private individuals. He said, "I agree with you that it was violent and we may have been on the border line. But the one thing which turned us to give that classification was that at the end there was redemption." If an enormous amount of disturbing violence has occurred it takes a rather adult perception to be able to say at the end of it, "My goodness, that was sickening but certain people redeemed themselves at the end of the picture." I thought it a complicated intellectual argument. He may have been right; he may have been wrong. But it seems to me that we have moved on from there and the fuss which has arisen is interesting.

As I understand it—the noble Lord. Lord Birkett, will no doubt rise to his feet to correct me if I am wrong—in recent times, since the change of government, Mr. Ferman has seen fit to introduce a new classification for videos, an R18. I understand that two videos—I hasten to say that I have not seen them and I would not want to see them—were allowed into the country but were restricted. They were only to be sold in sex shops, which are carefully governed by statute, and would not be sold in the normal way. The videos were of course inspected by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise and found to be against its "laundry list", its criteria as to whether videos are legal. They were adjudged to be illegal. However, they came in—"Bat Babe" and "Ladies Behaving Badly", not original, noble Lords may think, and I do not think the content was particularly original.

I had a talk with Mr. Ferman about the content of the videos. I did not wish to be invited to lunch to see them but he told me that there was a difficulty. He has done the job for more than 20 years. The body is accountable to Parliament under the Video Recordings Act 1984. The chairman is appointed by the Home Secretary but Mr. Ferman has been there for 22 years. He is a great expert in his job and he has seen great changes over the years in what is and is not acceptable.

With regard to the two films, I would probably have come to the same conclusion as the customs officers, being, as I am, in late middle age. What Mr. Ferman described to me as being in the films would have rung alarm bells with me. For example, he described them as being soft porn films but going towards the line between soft porn and hard porn. In one of the films there was some penetration. There was also the male erection, which is now deemed to be not so shocking as not to be seen by people provided there is a context of consent and what takes place is non violent and legal. I took his point absolutely. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, said, these are complicated matters. We have changing times. We have the perception that activities of a sexual nature are not now so alarming as they were some years ago. We have to decide on objective standards of what is acceptable in our society by way of decency and so on. We need a great deal more time than we have this evening to discuss very complicated issues.

I have been talking about the sexual area. I am not even discussing violence. As far as I am concerned, violence is out. I do not mind about sex. I would not want my six year-old boy to see "Bat Babe" and "Ladies Behaving Badly" but I would not want any of my children of whatever age to see violence; and I agree that one sometimes sees violence on ITV and BBC. These are complicated issues.

However, what worries me—I hope the noble Lord who is to answer the debate will be able to give guidance on this point—is the way in which the Home Secretary intervened. He felt that he had been let down by the two vice presidents of the British Board of Film Classification in not objecting to this new classification of videos, even though the videos were to be shown in restricted circumstances, and that he expected them to be the eyes and ears of the Government. I find it worrying that he should have expected that.

The great advantage of the British Board of Film Classification is that it involves intelligent people bringing objective views to difficult matters. They have done that successfully over the years. Their responsibility to Parliament is very little. They have to produce a report annually, but I do not think we have seen a report since 1996, which is curious. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has a copy with him. Apart from that, they are fairly unaccountable. I agree that they need to be made more accountable. But accountable to whom? I do not want them to be accountable to the Home Secretary. I do not want them to be accountable to politicians of any kind. I want them to be more accountable to Parliament so that we can have the debates which the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, has said are necessary. However, I do not want to see the Home Secretary, as it were, reducing the arm's length approach—we use this a good deal nowadays in lottery and other matters--which government have had previously with the British Board of Film Classification.

I have spoken for far too long but there is another matter on which I would appreciate a response from the noble Lord who is to reply. If government become more involved in these matters and we get what is effectively more censorship, although it may not be termed censorship. how will we stand with regard to our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights? Article 10 of the convention provides for redress against the restriction by any state authority of the freedom to express ideas and to provide information. That includes ideas which shock, disturb and offend. That is another element in a very complicated area that will need to be dealt with, not necessarily in debates in your Lordships' House but including debates in your Lordships' House.

I do not envy the Government. I understand what they want to do. I understand exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, wants to do, although he and I would probably not agree on the lengths to which we should go to protect children against all the materials which he described to the House tonight.

We have these obligations. Other countries seem to order their affairs in a different way so far as concerns sex. In France it seems that all systems are go and no one seems to complain. Pornography is regularly available. It is available on Canal-Plus at night. One night when I was at a film festival in France and could not sleep I turned on my television in the early hours of the morning. I turned it off within seven seconds. What I saw in seven seconds gave me the kind of nightmares that my small child now has as a result of whatever happened at school that day. Other countries too—Holland is an example—have adjusted themselves to a measure of freedom in this area. They have obviously concluded that the effect on children and the population as a whole does not require serious attention. We do not share that view in this country. I certainly do not share that view as regards violence. It is a very serious question. I am very thankful that we have had the opportunity of discussing it. I look forward very much to the amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill which comes to us in the middle of this month. Again, we shall not have enough time to develop a lot of very complicated issues which arise in this area.

My party is very concerned about striking the right balance. I believe that all parties are keen to do that, but they have different approaches. I hope that we can reach some consensus in your Lordships' House and that that will lead to some consensus in the country with the introduction of a proper approach to the whole business of violence and sex on television and video.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I rise not to tell him that he is wrong, as he invited me to do, because he is not, in the matter of the R18. I simply say that we believed at the BBFC that we were in step with the authorities—that is to say, Customs and the police. It turned out that we were not. It is plainly absurd that we should be out of step and the situation has been, as they say, "regulated" since then.

8.51 p.m.

Lord Skidelsky

My Lords, I am very aware of the passage of time and the shortness of the hour. I hope not to detain the House for too long. Despite the wording of the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I am assuming that the two Motions together simply seek to provide an opportunity for considering how well the present classification arrangements are working.

Even this short debate has revealed a variety of opinions concerning the effectiveness of the controls currently in place and about the effects of some videos, colloquially known as "video nasties" as well as video games, on the character and behaviour of those, especially young people, exposed to them. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, in powerful speeches have voiced concerns which are surely shared beyond this House. The gist of their arguments seems to be that certain videos do harm both to vulnerable individuals and to society by gratifying violence and by causing some people to commit illegal acts. The implication of their arguments is that there has been an increase in anti-social and illegal behaviour as a result of exposure to these filmic experiences.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy makes a powerful point in emphasising the special character of participant games like Grand Theft Auto. Those noble Lords point to weaknesses in the present regulatory system and want it strengthened. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, seeks to amend the Crime and Disorder Bill later this week to allow rights of appeal against the classification of video works, although I am still not quite sure to whom he would extend that right of appeal. To extend it to any citizen in the land would create something which was quite unworkable.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I would not extend the right to every citizen in the land, but to designated organisations to whom the Home Secretary would be able to designate by letter in precisely the way that is being done this evening.

Lord Skidelsky

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that clarification. However, the noble Lords, Lord Merlyn-Rees, Lord Birkett and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, have been sceptical about any simple link between viewing behaviour and actual behaviour. The noble Viscount mentioned the dangers of censorship inherent in any tightening of the regulations.

Perhaps I may now develop one or two points of my own. It should be noted that the present regulatory system, which includes classification, banning and cutting, already implicitly accepts that screen violence may have an important effect on viewers, even if it cannot be quantified, because otherwise one would not have a classification system. The controls are naturally more rigorous for videos because of the much greater difficulty of controlling access.

Before proceeding to stronger regulation we have to be persuaded that there is a definite link between watching certain kinds of video film and certain types of criminal behaviour. We also have to be persuaded that even if such a link were established it would be desirable or possible to go beyond the present regime in denying households access to this material.

As regards the first point—I am not an expert in this area because I only repeat what I have read and I am sure that other noble Lords have read a great deal more than I have—it seems to me that the majority view of researchers is that the link between specific filmic material and behaviour is both unproved and unprovable. I shall not repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, has already said about this. I merely point to the well-known difficulty of separating the effects of an element such as violence, sexual depravity or stealing, from the context in which it appears and, just as importantly, the context in which it is viewed.

I wonder whether noble Lords believe that playing with toy soldiers in the past—I do not believe that children do so as frequently today—led to an increase in militaristic attitudes and to a greater desire to kill foreigners or whether playing cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians increased the level of violence in society. The noble Viscount has pointed to the decline in playground violence over the years and I can confirm that. Schools are much more peaceful places today than when I was at school. The general culture of society has become steadily less violent although that does not mean that we have not had an increase in certain types of violent crime.

I do not want to be complacent. The fact that one cannot prove an assertion does not mean that it is not true. In such cases one has to fall back on common sense and one's best judgment. I cannot believe that an unrelieved diet of video nasties or the kinds of games mentioned by some noble Lords, is good for either individual character or society. Here the finger of suspicion points to households and their cultural setting which allow this diet to take place.

The noble Lord, Lord Birkett, referred to the report of Dr. Kevin Browne of Birmingham University which was commissioned by the Home Office. The one reasonably secure correlation brought out by that report is between criminal behaviour and domestic violence, family dysfunction and low intellectual ability. It is in such families that there is likely to be the least control over the viewing habits of young people and where screen violence is likely to have the greatest impact on behaviour since it is consistent with, rather than opposed to, the reigning cultural norms of those households.

But that is no argument for changing a regulatory system which works satisfactorily for the great majority. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, in placing emphasis on education but, having said that, I am somewhat sceptical about how much good it would do in families particularly at risk.

My Lords, in this matter we have to balance the right of people in a free society to watch what they want with the scale of the social problem which such freedom may create. The British Board of Film Classification already operates the toughest censorship regime in Europe. It already removes more material from video films than many people find desirable. Apart from desirability, I am not sure that it is possible to toughen the regulations without creating a black market. The attempt to plug all the channels through which undesirable electronic material enters households seems to be a hopeless undertaking.

I very much welcome the suggestion that we should discuss these problems further in a Select Committee but, for the time being, I am not persuaded that we do not have about the right balance between freedom and regulation. Certainly, I have not heard anything tonight that convinces me that we ought to disturb that balance.

9 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for raising this matter this evening and in particular for the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, who has rightly been concerned with various problems relating to video games. Time is passing and other noble Lords wish to resume their duties, so perhaps I may be brief. As the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, observed a moment ago, the problem of classification is that of drawing a balance between the right of the individual to receive material even when that material may be offensive to others, and the necessity to protect vulnerable people in our society.

That is the rationale behind the classification system. Both the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, spoke about classification and the deficiencies of what happens in the home. I suggest that that is not an attack on the classification system because whatever the classification system one establishes, however rigorous or liberal, ultimately I cannot envisage any control by law which would make parents not allow their children to watch inappropriate material. Added to that, one should not overlook the fact to which the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, referred, that there are many programmes on the television late at night containing material such as we are considering. Happily, I am ignorant of it because I always go to sleep early—often in the middle of television programmes which seem to have a hypnotic and narcoleptic effect on me, quite unlike your Lordships' House, of course! A good deal more truly offensive material is shown on the television—it can be recorded, and frequently is—than is available on classified videos.

I should like to express my gratitude to all noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, for the generous and gracious tributes that have been expressed about the quality of Andreas Whittam Smith. It is gratifying to the Home Office that the selection made by the Home Secretary, after proper consultation and a degree of "Nolan-ing", is so well regarded.

The noble Lord. Lord Alton, will acquit me of any discourtesy if I do not consider now the amendments that he intends to move on another occasion to the Crime and Disorder Bill. I believe that then would be the proper occasion for such a debate.

One or two questions have been asked about the lack of efficient and effective controls on sales in video shops. That is certainly a mischief, but the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, and Miss Lavinia Carey, the director of the British Videogram Association, and I recently spent a day together in the rain going round video shops—not the most enticing of opportunities, but quite informative because well-run video shops insist on proof of age. They train their staff properly and have such controls as make it virtually impossible for inappropriate sales to be made. They are perfectly well aware of the criminal sanctions and, perhaps more fundamentally, of the damage to their reputation that could follow. If there is evidence of criminal practice, it should be reported to trading standards officers who have the powers to prosecute in such cases.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, asked me two questions. The first was whether the Home Secretary had expected the president and vice-president of the BBFC to be his eyes and ears. My right honourable friend did not suggest that. He said, reasonably, that he expected that if the board was intending to alter the R-18 classification—that is, restricted material only to be sold by licensed sex shops—he would expect to be consulted. There was a lack of consultation between the board, the police and Customs. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, generously said that there was a glitch in communications. He rightly said that measures had been taken to ensure that the board is involved more thoroughly in discussions with the police, the prosecuting authorities and Customs and Excise.

As the noble Viscount said, times have changed. Some centuries ago, the material available to his noble ancestor would have been books, and books alone, in his library at Great Tew when he rightly said, On rainy days. I pity unlearned men".

Most young people and children now do not derive their images, thoughts and entertainment from books. That is unfortunate, but we have to deal with it. The truth is that society generally, in terms of what is available, is more violent and more sexually open. We have to deal with that. I believe that most of your Lordships have concluded that the balance is not too far wrong.

The noble Viscount also asked whether classification was consistent with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. I had hoped that after Third Reading of the Human Rights Bill last Thursday, I would not have to recite Article 10 ever again in my lifetime, but Article 10 is subject to the proviso—I paraphrase roughly from memory—that there can be restrictions on the freedom of expression where that is necessary in a democratic society. We believe that classification to protect the vulnerable is reasonably necessary in a democratic society, so that the Article 10 right to freedom of expression is not supreme.

The two noble Lords in whose names the Motions stand on the Order Paper have owned up and confessed this to be a device rather than a particular objective to ensure that Andreas Whittam Smith would not be the designated authority. It is useful to have such discussions on these occasions. The truth is that no human mind is capable of striking a perfect balance. The balance has to be adjusted periodically. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary decided that it was time that Mr. Whittam Smith should be appointed, that he had the necessary qualities of openness, decency, scruple and conscience to carry out these difficult obligations, and he therefore endorsed his appointment as president of the board. Currently there are two vice-presidents to be designated. One hopes that that can be done quite soon.

Even in the brief time since Andreas Whittam Smith took up his work in January of this year he has been willing to be open-minded and decisive. The noble Viscount is wrong to say that we have not seen a report since 1996. I believe that the document which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, flourished was the most recent report to be laid but not until 27th January of this year. I agree with the noble Viscount that that is very late because it should be laid as soon as reasonably practicable after the end of a current year. It is very significantly out of date. That is a matter which Mr. Whittam Smith has already accepted. The Home Secretary believes it is very important that the annual report should be available to be laid before both Houses of Parliament as soon after the relevant chronological period.

I hope that I have covered all the concerns expressed by your Lordships. There will be another occasion to debate the question of appeals. All I say about appeals—I break my own self-denying ordinance—is that not everyone will take the same view as the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, if appeals are open to all, because significant lobbies believe that the appeals system is far too restrictive and on appeal will therefore urge that cuts should be restored and that classification should be more liberally attended to. Therefore, I am not sure that the noble Lord would be happy if in all circumstances every conceivable interest were represented on appeals. However, that may be a dispute for another day. I am most obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for giving us this opportunity.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all speakers who have taken part in the debate. I should like to make clear that for my part I was concerned with a single computer game. My argument was not concerned solely with violence. Car crimes can be carried out without any violence. However, they are exasperating to much of the population. The game to which I referred has been released for only two months or less, so there has been no time in which to try to relate it to any increase in those crimes.

The noble Lord, Lord Birkett, who has been a member of the Classification Board, confirmed my point that the promoters of these computer games took the attitude that they were just a joke. Where does it stop? Does it extend to burglary or mugging old ladies? Almost any offensive crime could be treated simply as a joke.

I am most grateful particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who has replied extremely carefully and fully to the questions that I have raised on this subject over several months. I commend the Motion to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I should like to thank noble Lords for their contribution to the debate this evening. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for his reply.