Orders of the Day — Film Quota Defaulters (Prosecution)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th July 1952.

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Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

1.2 a.m.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

I propose to raise the subject of the prosecution of film quota defaulters. I am not sure whether this applies to the Isle of Man, but certainly it is an important issue in this island. I would preface my remarks by a number of assertions which I believe should command general agreement, but which I have no time to argue at the moment.

In the first place, in my belief every intelligent citizen in this country wants to see a healthy film industry producing and exhibiting British films of a high artistic and entertainment value. That is important not merely at home but abroad, because the President of the Board of Trade recently said that in 1950 the export of British films earned £2¼ million for this country.

Secondly, every intelligent citizen knows that we have got to reduce dollar expenditure to a minimum. The American films which are imported cost annually between £8 million and £9 million in dollars. We know that that sum has got to be kept to a minimum, and very shortly the Government will have to enter into negotiations about the future of that dollar expenditure.

Thirdly, ever since 1937 every Parliament has agreed that the quota is one way of encouraging British film production. The 1948 Cinematograph Film Act went through this House without a single Division. I believe that if we have a quota, which should be a realistic quota, it ought to be observed, and it is the Minister's job to promote the production of British films and to fix a realistic quota and see that the quota for British films, the guaranteed market, is maintained.

There is a glaring contrast since the passage of the 1948 Act between the number of defaulters and the number of prosecutions of defaulters. In the last three quota years there have been over 10,000 defaults on the two quotas, for the first feature films and for the supporting programme film. I know that the number of first feature defaults last year declined to 771, but it was still a substantial figure. On the other hand, the number of defaults on the supporting programme rose to over 2,300 in the quota year 1950–51.

Against this global total of defaults there have been during these three years fewer than 50 prosecutions of defaulters. In addition to those prosecutions, I know, a number of defaulting exhibitors have been warned about the fact that they have failed to fulfil the quota, but there is certainly a very glaring contrast between the 10,000 defaults in three quota years, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, less than 50 prosecutions by the President of the Board of Trade to attempt to enforce the quota against defaulting exhibitors.

I appreciate that there is hysteria in some quarters, and that it has been suggested that all defaulters are lawbreakers—or because it is thought it has been suggested that they are all lawbreakers. In fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) and I have raised a storm about our heads as a result of some of the Questions we have put in the House in recent weeks; but I have never suggested that all defaulters are lawbreakers. We know that there is a Section of the Act—Section 13—whereby, if a defaulter can show that it was commercially impracticable to fulfil the quota, he can get relief. But the onus of proof is on the exhibitor to show that it was impracticable, because of the non-availability of British films, and so on.

One of the things we ought to know more about in this House is how many reliefs have been granted—how many certificates under Section 13 of the Act have been granted—and in how many of those thousands of cases exhibitors have been able to show that it was commercially impracticable for them to fulfil the quota. It is obviously grossly unfair to those patriotic exhibitors who make efforts to fulfil the British quota that others should be able to escape from their obligations without justification, and, may be, make an extra profit; and, therefore, in fairness to the exhibitors themselves it is very important that we should have full information about the number of real defaulters that there have been, and the numbers who have managed to prove to the satisfaction of the President of the Board of Trade the commercial impracticability of fulfilling the quota, so that we can set that against the supply from the production of British films.

We have raised a number of Questions about the role of the Films Council in this matter, and I think that this is something which is very important. There is this Films Council which is representative of all sections of the film industry, one of whose responsibilities is to advise the President of the Board of Trade about defaults and about prosecutions, as well as that other vital responsibility of advising on the quota itself and upon the state of production.

In fact, it is an obligation on the President to consult the Films Council about this question of defaults on the quota and the reliefs which he ought to grant and the number of actions which he ought to take, and, therefore, the first question I want to put to the right hon. Gentleman is, why this machinery for the consideration of defaults is so slow moving. Nine months after the end of the 1951 quota year only 105 of the 771 cases of first feature defaults had been considered, and advice on them given to the right hon. Gentleman. At that rate of progress it will take the Films Council more than five years to consider the first feature quota defaults for the year 1951 only.

That is obviously an absurd situation, and we want to know where the responsibility lies for this failure to establish machinery for rapid consideration of those defaults on the quota, and to offer advice to the President as to what action he should take in order to maintain the quota, and to see that it is properly observed. That is the first point—the slow moving machinery, which may be the responsibility either of the President or of the Films Council, for the consideration of defaults.

The second thing is the part played by interested parties on the Films Council. The President of the Board of Trade has made a number of statements about this, but my information is that interested parties have taken part in the discussions on the Films Council and on the default committee of the Films Council about defaults on their own circuits. I make no personal imputation against members of the Films Council, because it seems clear that they have received no directive on this subject, and it is obviously unsatisfactory that directors or others associated with circuits or cinemas that have defaulted should take part in the defaults committee of the Films Council, particularly when the committee is discussing their own cases.

The President of the Board of Trade ought to give a clear directive to the Council on this matter if justice is to be seen to be done and there is not to be an impression that in fact, the recommendations made to the President of the Board of Trade are biased by the special pleading of interested parties on the Films Council.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aston some months ago raised the question of the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, and the reason why this cinema, which showed only one British film for the whole of the quota year, 1950–51, was not to be prosecuted for its default. It appears that those responsible for the conduct of the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, have successfully argued that, because they were in this year putting on expensive stage shows which made it financially difficult for them to pay also for the hire of British films, they should not be prosecuted. That recommendation was made to the President of the Board of Trade at the same time as interested parties associated with the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, were on the Films Council.

An explanation is required from the President of the Board of Trade about this particular case which has been given considerable publicity, because clearly the impression is spread abroad that this recommendation is biased, and there is no real reason why this cinema should not be prosecuted for a notorious default. The putting on of stage shows, no matter how admirable they might be, has nothing to do with the fulfilment of the quota to encourage the British film industry, and, therefore, we need to know something further from the President of the Board of Trade if we are to be satisfied that the Minister has considered this case properly.

There are two points which I want to put to the Minister. First, could he speed up consideration of the defaults by the Films Council and get the information as to how many reliefs have been granted, and why it was commercially impractical for so many cinemas not to fulfil the quota? Secondly, could we have an assurance that the Minister will establish that he only gets disinterested and objective advice from the Films Council in their recommendations?

It may be that the quota is too high, and that, in fact, is an argument which is being put forward by some quarters, and hon. Members received information about only today in the post. If that is so in my opinion a thorough-going inquiry into the state of the film production in this country should be made. If we have reached the situation where we have to depend on more than 70 per cent. of foreign films there should be an urgent and immediate inquiry into the present state of film production. But if the Minister fixes a quota it must be taken to be a realistic quota, and if there is such a quota he ought to take action to see that it is observed.

Nobody who has examined these facts can be satisfied with the action that is being taken at the moment, and I hope, therefore, that the President of the Board of Trade will be able to say something to show that he is aware of the situation and that he is doing something to remedy the defects.

1.15 a.m.

Photo of Mr Tom O'Brien Mr Tom O'Brien , Nottingham North West

The most charitable thing that I can say is that I assume that the views which have been expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler), and the hon. Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) earlier, are based upon a mistaken appreciation of the facts. I would hesitate to say that they are representing a malicious vested interest in this matter, but anyone who knows the facts of the film industry in all its aspects—production, distribution, exhibition, and so forth, could not possibly have put Questions to a Minister of the Crown in the form which my two hon. Friends have put them in the last few weeks.

I believe that they have been advised by malicious sources, and I here use the word "malicious" in its proper and objective sense. The temptation of hon. Members to go in for discussion on subjects about which they are ill-informed is, unfortunately, general, and something from which we all have to suffer. I have resisted the temptation to speak in the House on subjects upon which I am ill-informed. We are talking now of a very complicated industry, and the worst thing my hon. Friend could have done is to have chosen the Adjournment for this subject. Obviously, we cannot, in the half-hour at our disposal, deal with such a question as this, and I hope that the Government, in the next Session of Parliament will find time to have at least a reasonable opportunity of debating again the subject of the British film industry. I advise the right hon. Gentleman opposite to recommend the Government that some time should be so given, because we should then have the opportunity to remove these bad suspicions and misrepresentations.

First, we are concerned with the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square. The chairman of the directors of the company is a very distinguished American, and a very distinguished Briton, Mr. Sam Eckman. He has been in this country for 25 years, and he has a very creditable record behind him. He has assisted H.M. Government in the past, and he has assisted the Services during and since the war. His name and reputation are known in the Admiralty, and through it, the Royal Navy, and in the Army and the Royal Air Force, the world over. For my hon. Friend to try to besmirch the company which he represents is a very shocking thing indeed.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

It is no attempt on my part, or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) to besmirch Mr. Eckman, or anybody else; but there still remains the question: "Has the Empire Cinema fulfilled the quota in the past two years, and did an interested party decide whether or not some action should be taken?"

Photo of Mr Tom O'Brien Mr Tom O'Brien , Nottingham North West

I shall come to that later. I appeal again to the President of the Board of Trade to try to persuade the Government to find time, next Session, to enable this matter to be discussed at greater length than is possible tonight on the Motion for the Adjournment.

In passing, I want to say that there is no man I know of in the film industry who has been so pro-British and who has so much devoted his time and means to promoting the cause of Britain as the chairman of the directors of that cinema. I am making the point to show that he would not, under any circumstances, default against the law of this country. Personally—I am not committing my organisation or anybody—I would rather the Empire, Leicester Square, defaulted on quota every year for the next 10 or 20 years, if they could continue to produce a stage show that would give employment to 30 to 40 of our British artistes and actors, about 50 to 60 musicians, and 30 to 40 stage technicians, in preference to showing one British picture. They have spent £7,000 a week—I am speaking as a trade union leader—in giving employment to about 150 persons altogether, and the fact that they have not shown one British picture has not been derogatory or detrimental to the British film production industry in the least.

This attack on the Empire, Leicester Square, is nothing but a Communist-influenced attack on an American company, designed and calculated to promote the Communist Party's attack on America. I say that with all the knowledge of the facts. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Aston has been influenced in this matter. What do we find? We find the stage show is finished, and actors, actresses, musicians, and my own members, the stage technicians, are out of work, all because of what is called a theoretical compliance with quota. That, of course, is not an excuse. But the facts are not known. I cannot go into it; we have not time.

Now we come to the Films Council. The fault of the Council is not within itself; the fault is an Act passed by my own party then in power. I object—I am a member of the Films Council—to two members of the House stating that the Films Council was a body of conspirators to break the law. I am next week addressing to you, Sir, a Question as to whether the Privilege of this House has not been infringed by the suggestion that two Members, who are members of the Films Council, are being parties to a statutory body which has been engaged in a conspiracy to break the law. But that is another matter; I shall develop that next week and perhaps later.

The cinema exhibitors of this country have complied with the quota in an exemplary way. The great producer, Mr. Anthony Asquith, who is completely a nit-wit as far as politics is concerned, who takes no part in the affairs of the trade union movement—who takes no part at all in the affairs of his own union—besmirched the exhibitors of this country, to the extent of 2,100, as breaking the law. The exhibitors of this country comply with quota to the extent of 28 per cent., yet he gave the impression that 2,000 exhibitors were defaulting in quota to the extent of 100 per cent.

This is a subject which is not quite suitable for an Adjournment debate. I appeal to the Minister to find time for another discussion. I do not want to be charged with trying to take up the whole time or with being discourteous to the President of the Board of Trade. I conclude by saying that this whole matter is based on a complete misunderstanding and a complete misrepresentation of the facts.

The cinema industry of this country is a patriotic industry striving against great odds, and I hope that hon. Members will acquit themselves in future with a greater sense of responsibility in raising matters on which they are ill-informed and ill-briefed.

1.26 a.m.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Peter Thorneyeroft):

In the rather limited time at my disposal I would say, first, that I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North-West (Mr. O'Brien) that the best thing that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) has done in this matter is to raise it on the Adjournment where it is easier to deal with than it is in Question and answer.

He has made a general attack upon the administration of the law dealing with this subject. I would say to him that, if he looks at the position as a whole. I do not think that it is anything like as unsatisfactory as he suggests. I have not time to deal with all the points. But the basic quota last year for first feature films was 30 per cent. When we allow for the fact that certain cinemas are allowed by the Board of Trade under the Act itself to show fewer films, the average prescribed quota was 25.6 per cent. In fact, 28 per cent. was achieved.

In those circumstances, considering the overall position, the general purpose of this Act, which was passed by the previous Administration, is being carried out. That is the first point. The second point is that there has been a general assumption spread about that if in fact a cinema fails to fulfil its quota that in itself means that it is in some way a criminal in this matter. That is not what the Act provides.

It provides a very wide series of defences, including whether the matter is within their control; how many films were available; the character of the films; whether they were of excessive cost; and whether the whole business of showing those films was in fact commercially practical. Those defences are open to anyone who is charged.

If I might illustrate the problem of a prosecution under this Act, I would take the last year when quota defaults were the basis of prosecution, which was the year 1948–49. In that year, which was under the previous Government, only 39 prosecutions were launched and they were the distilled essence of no fewer than 1,474 defaults on first features and 1,381 on second features. That is, out of 2,855 only 39 cases were launched. Only 39 cases could be got on their legs at all. In only 25 of those cases was a conviction secured, 18 of them on a plea of guilty. Only in seven cases in the whole of the history of the Act has a conviction on a plea of not guilty been secured. In one of those it was quashed on appeal.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme ought to look back on the history of the Act, administered perfectly properly, by his own Government at that time, before he launches into this rather wild assault on the present administration of the Act or the actions of the various exhibitors.

The other thing I would endorse is that of the action of the Films Council, mentioned by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North-West. I am extremely indebted to that Council for its advice and assistance. It contains among its members two hon. Members of this House, both of them from the party opposite, and includes four producers, two renters, five exhibitors and four representatives of employees. There are also seven independent members. In those circumstances, it will be seen that the exhibitors are not in the majority, but in no circumstances whatever would it be possible to get useful advice from the Council without having some exhibitors on it to understand the various technicalities and difficulties connected with the subject.

On the question of the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, I think I need not add very much to what the hon. Gentleman the Member for Nottingham, North-West said. Clearly in all these matters reasonably minded people can take two different views. After taking into account the advice given by the Films Council, I am of the opinion that in that case a prosecution was not justified. It was a very special case as the hon. Gentleman has said with special features. It was not a biased opinion but was the fairest judgment I could make in the circumstances. I have looked at other cases, and am looking at them. Where I think prosecutions will succeed, I propose to start them. These cases will be decided in accordance with the law as laid down and on their facts by independent courts of justice. I would ask the House to await the results of these prosecutions to see that this Act can be carried into effect in the proper manner.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes to Two o'Clock a.m.