§ Mr. Coaker
To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when the British Board of Film Classification's Annual Report for 1996–97 will be published; and if he will make a statement. 
§ Mr. Straw
I have today laid before the House copies of the Annual Report of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) for 1996–97, which gives details of the Board's financial accounts and activities over the past eighteen months. Copies of the report have also been placed in the Library.
Under section 6 of the Video Recordings Act 1984, the designated authority for the classification of video works (in practice, the President and Vice Presidents of the BBFC) is required to produce a report as soon as is reasonably practicable after 31 December. The production of the report for 1996–97 has been greatly delayed and I have expressed my concern about this very strongly to the new President, Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith. Mr. Whittam Smith has made it clear that he shares my concern and has assured me that he will be establishing a timetable for the production of the 1997–98 report to ensure that it is produced as soon as possible after the audited accounts are available.
I have also made clear to Mr. Whittam Smith my serious concern at the unilateral action taken by the BBFC last year to relax the guidelines for the classification of videos in the R18 category (that is, videos which can lawfully be sold only in licensed sex shops). The BBFC's change of policy was brought to my attention by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise which was concerned that material had been classified which might have been liable to forfeiture under section 42 of the Customs Consolidation Act 1959 and the subject of forfeiture proceedings under section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959. It was entirely unacceptable that the Board should have acted in this way. As a consequence of my concern, Mr. Whittam Smith has inquired into the handling of this matter and is putting in place procedures to ensure proper controls on the formulation of policy. He is also taking steps to improve management accountability at the Board.
On taking up his post, Mr. Whittam Smith outlined his proposals for reviewing the Board's classification policy and his intention to consult widely on this issue. I welcome these positive steps towards greater openness and accountability at the Board.