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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I thank Mr. Foster and others for their encouragement. We live in an age where videos, DVDs and more recently Blu-ray discs constitute a hugely important part of every family's entertainment. Figures compiled by the British Video Association show that a record 258 million DVDs, Blu-ray DVDs and videos were sold in 2008, with a total market value of £2.3 billion. A further 79 million videos, DVDs and Blu-ray DVDs were rented in 2008. The number of films sold on video has more than trebled in the past 10 years from 61 million units in 1999 to 196 million last year. According to the British Video Association, 6.5 million DVD players were sold in 2008, taking cumulative DVD hardware sales since launch to 55 million- the equivalent of two players for every household in the UK.
Videos and DVDs are an essential element of domestic life in the 21st century, yet they are a relatively recent part of our cultural experience. The video recorder was invented in the 1960s and began to take off as a mass market phenomenon only in the late 1970s. In 1979 there were 200,000 video recorders in the UK but by 1984, when the original Video Recordings Act was introduced, over 4 million had been sold. Looking to the future-I am sure that hon. Members will make this point later-there is a definite shift in how we consume both video and video game content. The online distribution models are developing and will no doubt continue to do so at an increasing pace.
Certainly, there will have been prosecutions that were pending or in process when the defect, to echo the right hon. Gentleman's phrase, was discovered. Those will have had to be stopped once it became apparent that the law was no longer enforceable because of its non-notification. We have heard of a handful of putative-usually putative-appeals or claims for compensation against previous convictions, although all our advice tells us that such speculative attempts to exploit the loophole further are likely to be unsuccessful.
Although the online environment is clearly the future and is going to grow, we must not be dismissive of the traditional boxed product. Only yesterday, senior executives from Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony were all reported as saying that digitally distributed product is unlikely to overtake the boxed product for some considerable time to come.
It is very nice to hear about the contribution that the industry makes to the British economy. Does the Minister intend, in his speech, to touch on the Byron review and the Government's commitment to prevent violent video games from falling into the hands of young people? Are the Government still committed to the conclusions of Byron? Will the recommendations be implemented in full? When will the Digital Economy Bill come before the House? It deals with all the other issues that the Minister cannot deal with in the context of the present Bill.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is a tireless advocate of his views on the subject. Yes, the Government are committed to Byron and to child safety. The work of the Internet Watch Foundation and the Department for Children, Schools and Families-led group that has been set up in an unprecedented way across Government to look at all child safety issues online is very important, groundbreaking and central to what the Government are doing. As my right hon. Friend knows, those are matters not for today, but for the Digital Economy Bill, which is now in another place.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way to me a second time. He talked about the boxed games. One of the concerns is that when people buy video games, there is not sufficient notice on those games that they have adult content, which is central to what the Video Recordings Bill hopes to do-to ensure proper enforcement. Is there anything in the proposal or in any measure that the Government propose to introduce in the near future that will ensure that when retailers sell such games, it is clear that they have adult content-that is, by increasing the very small notification on the box that it is an adult game?
As my right hon. Friend knows, child safety, boxed games, and good information that is readily understandable by the public when adult content is included in games or DVDs are central to our approach and to the Byron recommendation that content should be clearly labelled and that content unsuitable for children should not be made available for children.
However, that is not a matter for today. None of the provisions that we are discussing today in this short two-clause Bill will affect that in any way. The size of the rating symbols on the boxes is a subject which I know my right hon. Friend and I will discuss at length in the Committee stage of the Digital Economy Bill. I look forward to that, but it is not something that I should be diverted into discussing today.
The Minister will be aware, as many of us are, that because of the length of time that it now looks likely the Digital Economy Bill will take in another place, there is a real possibility that time will run out to complete its passage through both Houses before the forthcoming general election. Given the importance of the specific issue raised by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, will the Minister give an assurance to the House that if time ran out, measures would be sought to find agreement so that at least that aspect, on which there is all-party agreement, could still get on to the statute book?
We have every intention of getting the Digital Economy Bill in its entirety on to the statute book although, as the hon. Gentleman knows, in order to do that, we will be partly reliant on the good will of members of his party and of the official Opposition- [Interruption.]
I think I have made the point. We intend to get the legislation through before the election. If the hon. Member for Bath and his hon. Friends, and right hon. and hon. Members on the Conservative Benches, will help us with that, that would be the best approach for all concerned.
I shall make progress. As I said, we should not be blinded by the online future and discount the importance of the massive volume of boxed products that will continue to be sold in the UK.
The early 1980s saw the introduction, largely from America, of what became known as video nasties: videos that depicted acts of gross violence and violent sexual acts-acts so extreme that they caused concern about the potential effects of watching them on young people and vulnerable adults. In response, Parliament passed in 1984 the Video Recordings Act. That Act introduced a system for classifying video films and some video games according to their content, and a series of offences for supplying classified videos and video games to people under the age restriction. The 1984 Act also stopped the distribution of video nasties by ensuring that such films did not receive a classification and making it an offence to supply unclassified material.
Some 25 years on, it is clear that the provisions of the 1984 Act have worked to remove the worst material from circulation. For example, the British Board of Film Classification, the body appointed under the 1984 Act to classify videos and DVDs, recently refused to classify the highly controversial Japanese film, "Grotesque". The BBFC explained that
"the film has running themes of sexual assault, humiliation and extreme torture...and...presents the audience with...an unrelenting and escalating scenario of...sadism...(including sexual sadism) for its own sake."
The 1984 Act was introduced to remove such films from general circulation, and I am sure that all hon. Members will congratulate the BBFC on its often unpleasant work.
It is also clear that the system of classification that the 1984 Act introduced is well understood and well regarded by the public. Independent research conducted on behalf of the BBFC shows that 71 per cent. of adults make use of the classification ratings of films to guide their purchasing decisions at least some of the time, and that 46 per cent. do so before purchasing video games. In addition, out of a total of 3,900 film viewing occasions, those surveyed agreed 99 per cent. of the time with the BBFC's classifications. It is a good organisation, implementing a good piece of legislation that works, and it was with considerable regret, therefore, that we discovered in August 2009, during our preparations for the Digital Economy Bill, which, as hon. Members will know, is in another place for consideration, that the 1984 Act was no longer enforceable under UK law. The situation arose because of a procedural failure in 1984 to notify the European Commission of the Act's provisions in draft under the technical standards directive. I keep stressing "in draft" because we have to repeal the 1984 Act and revive it so that it can be notified in draft; we cannot notify an existing Act.
In case anyone wishes to make a party political point about the issue, it may be worth noting that the legislation was not notified in draft because it was a private Member's Bill, not a Government Bill. Will the Minister elaborate on how the error was discovered in 2009 and, to return to the point, on when the Cabinet Office intends to conclude its audit of all Acts passed since 1984 in terms of their compliance with the technical standards directive?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I do not want to make a party political point out of the issue. That would be silly, and I am not going to do so. Nobody involved with the legislation then is a Member now, but I think that another reason why the error might have occurred is that the technical standards directive came in early in 1984 and the Video Recordings Act came out slightly later. They almost overlapped in their inception.
If I can help the Minister, I should say that the directive came into force on
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his extraordinary parliamentary erudition, and for his help on the matter.
May I further help the Minister? While he is being extremely generous to Mr. Vaizey on the Conservative Front Bench in relation to what happened in 1983 and 1984, will he also bear in mind that in 1993, many years later, the 1984 Act was considered again in great detail, when it was amended by the then Conservative Government, whose current party leader was at that time an adviser to the then Home Secretary? Surely by 1993 the omission should have been noticed.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, and he makes it more difficult for me to resist making cheap party political points at the expense of the Opposition. Nevertheless, I shall resist.
I shall move on to answer the question from Mr. Vaizey about how the omission was discovered last year. The answer is that, as part of our preparation for the Digital Economy Bill, we were involved in a similar process of notifying to the European Commission the Bill's amendments to the 1984 Act-a similar process to that which the hon. Member for Bath suggests one might have thought would have happened in 1993 and 1994. On this most recent occasion during that process, it was noticed that the original Bill had not been notified.
Will the Minister help me? I think that Mr. Foster, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, has inadvertently been helpful, which is not a phrase that I often like to use-but we are all in the process of engaging with the Liberal Democrats. If the 1984 Act was amended in 1993, was the amendment notified to the European Commission; and is that aspect of the Act, therefore, still enforceable?
My understanding is-I am pretty clear-that none of the Act is enforceable, because the original legislation was not notified to the Commission in 1983-84.
After everyone has been so helpful, I do not want to be unhelpful, but I am still puzzled, because the Library research paper on the Bill before us states that
"the Government's legal advice appears to be that previous convictions under the 1984 Act are safe."
If there is a loophole and the 1984 Act is unenforceable, I do not understand how previous convictions under it can be safe. Will the Minister explain that point, please?
The convictions are safe in the sense that any attempt to seek any restitution against them would almost certainly fail in court. For instance, any appeal would be an out-of-time appeal, after 21 days, and therefore, although it would be technically possible to mount an out-of-time appeal, it would be very unlikely to succeed. If a criminal mounts an appeal because they have discovered a brief loophole in the law, they are pretty unlikely to receive a sympathetic hearing from a court. All our advice suggests that for a range of reasons like that, it is very unlikely that criminals and disreputable people will be able to exploit the loophole by seeking such restitution.
The purpose of the Video Recordings Bill, therefore, is very simple. It is designed only to repeal and revive the provisions of the Video Recordings Act 1984 in order to make the criminal offences in the Act enforceable again. Until that has been done, no new prosecutions can be made under the Act and prosecutors cannot oppose appeals made in time against convictions. This means that publishers of videos, DVDs and 18-rated and R18-rated video games can distribute their goods free of any classification restrictions. Retailers can sell classified and unclassified adult material to any person, regardless of age, with limited statutory powers to stop or prosecute them. There is also a danger-although we think it slight-that past convictions may be challenged.
To their credit, the reputable makers and distributors of videos and DVDs have continued to submit their films for classification voluntarily, and reputable retailers have continued to abide by the age classification restrictions. Trading standards officers throughout the country, however, are coming across more and more cases of people seeking to exploit the loophole. Officials are uncovering more and more cases of unscrupulous people selling unclassified material or age-restricted material either by post or in outlets that are not licensed sex shops.
For example, law enforcement officials in Milton Keynes have had to return 550 seized unrated DVDs to a seller who is now free to supply them until the Act becomes enforceable again. To be clear, unrated means beyond the R18-potentially very unpleasant material. In Bournemouth, trading standards officers were unable to prevent a newsagent selling R18 and unrated hard-core sex videos, while in Conwy, law enforcement officers were unable to deal with seven cases of supplying 18-rated videos to children. In Edinburgh, five outlets supplying adult material could not be pursued by trading standards officers. These examples are just a few of the many being discovered by trading standards officers and law enforcement officers in every part of the country.
The longer this legal loophole is allowed to exist, the greater risk of harm being caused to the public by the unrestricted circulation of this kind of material and the greater the potential for the most extreme material to be supplied to children. It is therefore vital in helping to restore the public's faith in Parliament and the video classification system that we act quickly to restore the important public protections contained in the 1984 Act.
The Bill was notified to the European Commission on
I know of the concern in this House and in the other place about the use of the fast-track process for legislation and the dangers involved in it, but the Video Recordings Bill provides a classic example of why fast-track legislation still has a role to play. There is a real problem that needs to be dealt with quickly in order to restore important public protections. The Bill does not introduce any new provisions beyond those with which we are all familiar and that have been successfully enforced for 25 years.
The Bill could hardly be simpler, consisting of only two clauses and a schedule. Clause 1(1) repeals the provisions of the Video Recordings Act 1984 and then immediately revives them. Clause 2 refers simply to the short title of the Bill, its commencement and extent. The schedule contains transitional provisions that are designed to ensure that the repeal and revival of the VRA provisions do not change their effect or the effect of other documents that refer to them-in other words, it ensures that all administrative decisions taken previously under the Act still remain valid in law. This is needed to ensure both that all films do not need to be submitted for classification again and a seamless transition once the 1984 Act is revived.
In order to close the period during which offences cannot be prosecuted as soon as possible, the Bill is intended to come into force immediately on Royal Assent. Thus, in summary, the Bill does not introduce any new provisions or offences into the 1984 Act; it simply restores a system of classification that has been in operation for the last 25 years, which has worked to stop the circulation of the worst kind of video material. It is a system that is well understood and liked by a clear majority of the public and the industry. The Bill is essential to ensure proper protection of the public from the inappropriate supply of violent and sexual video material by making the offences under the 1984 Act enforceable again.
I am grateful for this chance to support the Government in seeking to pass the Video Recordings Bill. As the Minister noted in his opening remarks, we are here for some very peculiar reasons. In theory, we are debating a Bill that was enacted as long ago as 1984. The then Video Recordings Bill was introduced by Graham Bright, the then Member for Luton, South, who rose to become an extremely successful Parliamentary Private Secretary to an extremely successful Prime Minister, John Major. He introduced the Bill on
As is well known, the Bill was intended to address the problem of what were then known as "video nasties". Because videos were unclassified, it was perfectly legal to sell any kind of video without any restriction whatever. As the Minister noted, in the mid-'80s, video recorders-and therefore videos-were becoming all-pervasive, so there was a need to act because videos showing all kinds of unmentionable acts were freely available.
The approach adopted by Mr. Bright in dealing with this problem was ingenious. He introduced a system of classification, and what became illegal was not the selling of an obscene video but the selling of an unclassified video, or a classified video to an inappropriate audience. The test of whether somebody was guilty under the Act was extremely clear-cut. Before the Act was passed, the problem had been that the only available sanction to stop a video nasty was the Obscene Publications Act 1959. Almost by definition, that was a subjective and difficult test to pass. In fact, there were cases of juries clearing people who were accused of selling an obscene video because the jury clearly took the view that it was not obscene. Under the Video Recordings Act 1984 it was made clear that one could not sell an unclassified video. I shall go on to explain why the Act has been so successful-largely because the British Board of Film Classification, to which I pay tribute, has been extremely successful in implementing its provisions.
If any hon. Member has the time over the weekend-or perhaps they will have had time over the Christmas break-it is worth revisiting the debates on the Video Recordings Bill in 1983 and 1984. I am extremely grateful to Mark Taylor from the Library, who pulled out the Committee stages for me to have a look at. The Minister and I were both doing our O-levels at the time, so we may not have been that focused on the debates then taking place.
As the Minister said in his opening remarks, there is a salutary lesson here about how quickly technology changes and moves on. It almost quaint to read those debates, with people referring to the video recording industry as a "new and dynamic" industry; I suspect that most video recorders are now discarded or hidden away in attics. The Minister says that it will be a considerable time before film downloads overtake box sets, but I suspect that in a few years' time, DVD machines will be going the same way and we will be downloading films directly on to our televisions. I will come back to that problem in a few minutes.
The debate on the Bill took place at a time when the technology revolution was just beginning. It is breathtaking to see the changes that have subsequently taken place in our lifetimes.
It is worth reviewing some of the arguments for and against the Bill at the time. For example, there was a proposal to license video stores, which was rightly rejected as bureaucratic. There was also a debate about- [Interruption.] There are noises off, Mr. Speaker, which are distracting me from my carefully drafted speech. It is interesting to note-well, it is interesting to me, if not to Mr. Foster-that there were also calls for self-regulation of the video recording industry and suggestions that it should be given time to come up with its own system of regulation. I view that as interesting, because there are echoes of our current debate as the Digital Economy Bill goes through the other place and we are debating whether it is appropriate for the Government to regulate on internet piracy or whether there should be self-regulation by the internet service providers. As the Minister knows, we support the Government in bringing in legislation to crack down on internet piracy.
The debate was notable for other contributions, notably a maiden speech by a new Conservative Member for Norwich, which brings to mind the excellent maiden speech recently made by my hon. Friend Chloe Smith. The highlight of the Second Reading debate at the time was a fine and intelligent speech by one Matthew Parris, the then Member for West Derbyshire, who showed the flair and imagination that have been such a hallmark of his subsequently glittering career in journalism. I say all this in the full expectation that I will be written up in exceptionally glowing terms in his column in The Times this Saturday. While this House was sad to lose Mr. Parris, its sorrow was tempered by the election of his successor, who I may say has served the people of West Derbyshire, and this House, exceptionally ever since.
Order. The hon. Gentleman's very blatant tribute to his own Chief Whip is of great interest to the House but of no relevance to the Video Recordings Bill.
I would never dare to argue with you, Mr. Speaker, but I am a little hurt that you have stolen my punchline. I was, of course, referring to my Chief Whip, but there we go. There goes the joke. I had asked for the entire Committee stage of the previous Bill to be photocopied for me, and I was going to refer in some detail to those proceedings in 1983 and 1984. However, I shall take my lead from you, and pass over what I intended to be an extensive discussion of them.
As the Minister has made clear, someone forgot to tell Europe-or, more accurately, the European Commission-that the previous draft Bill should have been referred to the Commission under Council directive 83/189/EEC of
I might have misheard the hon. Gentleman. Will he confirm that his understanding of the Bill that we are about to pass is that it does not involve Brussels imposing something on the UK, but instead achieves a position in which we can prevent the importation of material from other EU countries that does not have the certification that we require? Is this not therefore a case of the UK imposing things on other EU countries, and not the other way round?
No, that is not my understanding of the Bill. As I understand it, an Act passed by a sovereign Parliament is not an Act unless it has been approved by Brussels.
I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Act remains an Act: an Act of this Parliament is an Act of Parliament when it is an Act of Parliament. All that is in question is the enforceability of the Act, which remains on the statute book.
We are in danger of descending into sophistry. It is an Act of Parliament, but it is a toothless one unless it is referred to Brussels. That is the situation that we are in, but we are not having a debate on Europe and its encroaching powers. Through interventions on the Minister, we have asked how many other Acts of this British Parliament might be toothless, and we look forward to him telling us when the Cabinet Office will report on its audit of every single Act passed since the technical standards directive was put into force.
I am following the hon. Gentleman's speech with great interest-but he has not yet told us what grades he got in his O-levels.
That was a sort of rhetorical question. I am sure you would have something to say if we were to discuss that, Mr. Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned an audit of all the Acts since 1984. Does he have information to suggest that other Acts of Parliament have breached the European rules, or is he just speculating that some might have done so? It would involve an awful lot of work if the Cabinet Office were to go through every single Act of Parliament.
The Cabinet Office would not have to go through every single Act of Parliament. It would have to go through only those that have an effect on trade and the free movement of goods. The hon. Member for Bath made the point that the Act restricts the trade in videos and therefore has to be referred to the European Commission. I hear what Keith Vaz is saying, however. I know that his Government are keen to save money to protect front-line services, as they say, and perhaps he thinks that the Cabinet Office exercise is a waste of money. Nevertheless, it is going ahead, as the Minister made clear. The Minister hesitated in his response, saying that as far as he knew, no other Act had breached the requirement for reference under the technical standards directive. However, the audit is taking place, and we would like to know when it will be completed.
I want to say a word about fast-track legislation. I said that we supported the Government's aim of getting the Bill through, but I take note of the remark made by Mr. Heath that they should not assume, simply because we agree that this Bill is suitable for fast-track legislation, that any other Bill that they decide to fast-track will receive the same assent. However, we agree that this Bill should be fast-tracked, for the reason that the Minister gave-that an important Act that protects the public from unpalatable video content remains unenforceable and is being breached up and down the country. People are aware of the loophole and, as the hon. Member for Bath said, if we delay any longer, the breaches will continue. The Minister said that this would be an effective piece of legislation that could be implemented quickly; it was also debated extensively when it was first introduced.
I paid tribute earlier to the work of the British Board of Film Classification, and it is worth spending some time explaining to the House how the board goes about implementing the legislation. It awards an appropriate classification to video works, it provides clear consumer advice, and when necessary it removes material from a work. In extremis, it refuses to classify a work. I think that about 4 per cent. of videos submitted to the BBFC are unclassified or have cuts made. That figure is down from a peak of about 12 per cent. when the Act was first introduced, which shows that the Act works not only through the direct intervention of the BBFC but by implication, in the sense that people are keen to comply with the BBFC's guidelines before submitting a work to it.
My hon. Friend puts a positive interpretation on those statistics, but will he concede that they might contain a slightly less positive message? The fact that the number of cuts and rejections has gone down so massively in the past 20 years might mean that although the content of the videos is just as bad as it ever was, the BBFC is now less keen to cut them than it was then.
I certainly concede that point. One can look at this from the perspective that the glass is half full, or that it is half empty, because tastes have changed. An example is the film "A Clockwork Orange", which was originally banned but is now available on video.
I hesitate to disagree with my hon. Friend, but I believe that "A Clockwork Orange" was not banned, but withdrawn by Kubrick, because he was publicly blamed for certain attacks that took place, which the press attributed to the influence of his film.
I take my hon. Friend's correction. I cannot think of another film off the top of my head, but perhaps "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" might-
Obviously tastes change, and some films and videos that were unpalatable 20 years ago are now more palatable. For example, "Straw Dogs", an X-rated 1971 film that was originally rejected for video release, was accepted uncut for video release in 2002 with an 18 classification. "The Exorcist" was released uncut on video in 1999, and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"-
Order. I think we have had enough of this-
Order. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House for four and a half years. I am sure he knows that he needs to resume his seat. I was sceptical as to whether we needed to go round the legislative course of 25 years ago, but I am absolutely certain that we need no further evidence of the hon. Gentleman's expertise in cinema.
I concede your point, Mr. Speaker, but, yet again, you have torpedoed my next joke. Depressingly, I was going to cite the example of "Bridget Jones's Diary", a DVD that was, surprisingly, censored by the BBFC. I was going to make the joke that unless we pass this legislation rapidly, Richard Curtis might start putting out unsuitable DVDs, but I now I shall not.
The BBFC works closely with law enforcement agencies by providing classification evidence to ensure successful prosecutions. That co-operation is necessarily on hold while the Video Recordings Act 1984 is unenforceable.
There were several notable interventions in the Minister's opening remarks about the effect of the unenforceability of the Act on previous prosecutions, which fills me with concern. As far as I am aware, something like 2,600 prosecutions have been successfully carried out under the Act. He says that his Department has received legal advice that if people seek to overturn convictions they are unlikely to succeed, but I do not share his confidence. It appears to be based on legal advice that he and his Department have received that an appeal against conviction would be out of time. However, I assert to him that an individual seeking to overturn a previous conviction would not simply appeal against it-by definition, they would have been prosecuted under a unenforceable Act, so there would be nothing to appeal against. Instead, they would seek to set it aside. I am concerned about that.
The House is not in the habit of passing retrospective legislation. The last Conservative Government passed one piece of retrospective legislation-the War Crimes Act 1991, which allowed people living in this country who were guilty of war crimes in the second world war to be prosecuted. It is not a habit that we want to get into, but I counsel the Minister that his legal advice appears to be extremely ropy. For example, if a person has been convicted under an unenforceable Act-we concede that the 1984 Act is unenforceable-what do they do about their Criminal Records Bureau file? A CRB check on someone could show that they had been convicted under the Act, but they might want to get rid of that and apply to have the conviction set aside. Is it appropriate that the CRB should put convictions under the Act on people's files? That concerns me.
I would also be interested to know what the legal advice on compensation is. Of course, if people seek to set aside their convictions, that is one thing, but seeking compensation from the Government is quite another. What advice has the Minister received about what compensation might be available to people who seek to set aside those convictions? My hope-I do not have the necessary expertise in such matters-is that compensation would be de minimis if it was given at all.
The key point that the Minister tried to get across in his speech, and which we support him on, is that the 1984 Act is very much a live Act: it works and it is effective. Unlike many of the Acts and Bills that we debate in the House-one thinks of the Fiscal Responsibility Bill, which we debated yesterday-the Act has a real impact on consumers every day. He cited the opinion polls that show that 71 per cent. of people make use of classifications under the Act. There is mandatory labelling on the front and back of cases and any other surface of 5 cm or more, and videos must carry the BBFC age rating in words in a prominent position and in a specific size. In the case of box sets that contain differently rated works in one package, the classification of the highest-rated work must be printed on the outer packaging. The vast majority of video distributors include consumer advice to provide additional detail about a work's rating to enable parents to make an informed choice about their children's video viewing, so the ratings empower the consumer, particularly parents.
I am delighted that the Minister raises the issue of children. Presumably he is fully behind the recommendations of Tanya Byron. Those over 18 may choose whatever video or DVD they want, but we need to have measures in place that will protect children and young people from having access to violent video games.
We need to protect children from access to violent video games, films, television shows and books. The issue is not the genre-be it video game, film or video-but the content. That is what we must protect children from. I am flattered that the right hon. Gentleman already considers me to be a Minister. If he is that worried about a future Conservative victory, I hope he will join the rebellion currently being instigated by a number of ex-Ministers for a secret ballot-
Order. I believe the hon. Gentleman has enjoyed a fair amount of latitude already this afternoon, and I seriously urge him to stick to the confines of the debate before us.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The 1984 Act has been effective in dealing with under-age sales, and it is a vital tool in helping to ensure that children and young people do not gain access to products that are harmful and detrimental to their safety and welfare. Picking up the point made by Keith Vaz, it is interesting to note that in the past two years, more than 200 cases of under-age sales have been prosecuted. That is an example of how the Act is working, and in particular of how it is being implemented to protect children. We often talk about protecting children in the abstract, but the Act is a real, live example.
The Act helps to deal with unofficial and counterfeit goods, and it is used to prevent supplies of counterfeit or pirate works and as a means of detecting unclassified works. It is therefore effective against unofficial products being put into circulation, and therefore helps to protect legitimate businesses from unscrupulous trading. The BBFC frequently gives evidence to the Federation Against Copyright Theft and the Trading Standards Institute on whether a seized work has been classified by it for distribution in the UK. Even if traders of pirated products are not prosecuted on behalf of rights owners for conspiracy to defraud, or for copyright or trade mark infringement, actions can still be taken for illegally supplying an unclassified work or a classified work to an under-age person.
The Act helps to deal with the problem of parallel imports of video works from other countries. Those are normally in breach of it because they have not been classified or labelled for UK distribution. That is extremely useful to UK retailers and distributors who have acquired licences for sale in the UK and who wish to protect their businesses from unlicensed imports. The point again is that often, prosecutions are the tip of the iceberg. The fact is that people who seek to import videos and distribute them illegally in this country are put off by the provisions of the Act.
The Act can be a gateway to the discovery of other serious offences. Often, investigations that begin with a breach of the Act unearth other criminality such as obscene images, the proceeds of crime or illegitimate business dealings. It can therefore help to uncover unscrupulous businesses.
As the Minister indicated, although the Act remains unenforceable, it is heartening that legitimate makers of videos continue to comply with its provisions. Responsible members of the home entertainment industry, which includes distributors belonging to the British Video Association and games publishers, have continued to submit their works to the BBFC for classification. However, the BBFC is concerned that others are not doing so.
I join the hon. Gentleman in his praise of the industry. Is he aware that in fact, the number of products that have been submitted for classification since the problem arose has dropped significantly? There must be a concern that material is being produced and sold inappropriately and unclassified.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, you were not in the Chamber when Mr. Speaker continued to anticipate my every remark. Now that he has left the Chamber, that role has been taken by the hon. Gentleman, because I was about to say that the BBFC is concerned that submissions have decreased significantly. There was an 11 per cent. reduction in September 2009 and 20 per cent. in October 2009. He is not even listening to me now, but there was a reduction of 38 per cent. in only the first half of November 2009. That is an extremely worrying trend.
There are numerous examples of distributors blatantly disregarding the law because they know that it is unenforceable. For example, in Bournemouth, trading standards officers cannot prevent a newsagent from selling R18 and unrated hardcore sex videos or two unlicensed sex shops from selling unrated DVDs. There are examples throughout the country: Brent, Cheltenham, Conwy, Dorset, the highlands, Havering, Islington, Luton, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Powys and Southampton have all reported examples of retailers distributing unclassified works because they know that the 1984 Act is not enforceable. As the Under-Secretary said, some local authorities are even being pursued through the courts for carrying out in good faith what they believed to be their statutory obligations.
We have made it clear from the outset that we support the Government's intention to pass the Bill as quickly as possible. Let me mention only two concerns on which, in a perfect world, we wish the Government had acted.
First, as the hon. Member for Bath said, the Digital Economy Bill will amend the 1984 Act and bring video games into a system of statutory classification using the European rating system known as PEGI-pan European game information. Broadly speaking, hon. Members of all parties support that. Everybody recognises that video games should be classified under a statutory system. The vigorous debate that took place between the British Board of Film Classification and PEGI about the appropriate rating system was played out and a conclusion, which Conservative Members support, was reached.
However, we assert that the Under-Secretary could have inserted relevant provisions in a draft Bill, which could then have been submitted to the European Commission in September and returned to the House to be enacted. To pick up on the point that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made, although we support fast-tracking the Bill, we would have supported including provisions in a draft that was submitted to the European Commission and extending the debate on the measure. It need not have taken long-we could have had Second Reading today, Committee tomorrow and Third Reading next week.
I make that point because there is serious concern about the time available for the Digital Economy Bill. It is debatable whether we will even get a chance to discuss those provisions in this House. If the Under-Secretary responds by claiming that including those draft provisions in the Bill that we are discussing would have made a debate impossible, I say wait and see whether we even have a debate on those provisions, if and when they come before us through the Digital Economy Bill. I am not sending a hidden message. Conservative Members intend to co-operate on the Digital Economy Bill-although we take issue with some of it, it contains many important provisions that help the digital economy. However, in the circumstances, with the Prime Minister on the verge of toppling because of a rebellion by his-
Order. I repeat my earlier remarks to the hon. Gentleman and remind him that we are dealing with one Bill at a time. At the moment, we are considering the Video Recordings Bill.
That is absolutely correct.
There is some concern that music and sports videos remain exempt from classification. Again, that exemption could have been removed in a draft submitted to the European Commission. There is overwhelming support for removing the exemptions. There is not a shred of logic or intellectual credibility to keeping music and sports videos exempt. Why should something be exempt just because it is of a particular genre? As I said to the right hon. Member for Leicester, East, we are worried about inappropriate content being distributed to minors and adults. Whether it is in a video game, DVD, film, a music video or something related to sport is irrelevant. The exemption is bizarre. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees-he is nodding.
I do not agree that we are talking about the same thing. A film with inappropriate content is not interactive. The point about video games, which is backed up by research from America, is that the player is part of the process. Players shoot and stab people in a video game, and that is different. I accept that inappropriate content is wrong, wherever it is found, but video games are different.
I continue to assume that the right hon. Gentleman is against hard-core pornography and offensive content. For example, a video by the band Slipknot, which includes self-mutilation by teenagers, remains unclassified. Before we get into a debate on censorship, I am not saying that that content cannot be viewed by responsible adults, or that the video by Mötley Crüe, which depicts a George Bush lookalike with a prostitute, could not be viewed by responsible 18-year-olds. However, I think that all hon. Members agree that it should not be viewed by a 10-year-old, and should therefore be classified so that parents know, if their 10 or 11-year-old comes home saying, "I've got the latest Mötley Crüe video," exactly what it could contain. It is extraordinary that music and sports videos are exempt. We will continue to press for the removal of that exemption. However, we are where we are; the Bill has been introduced in its current form and we do not intend to stand in its way.
I end with a wider point about what the Bill omits, and ask whether we are closing the stable door after the horse has bolted and whether, by considering a Bill that applies to a venerable Act-25 years old-we are missing the point. I ask that because of the advent of the internet and convergence. Although the Under-Secretary said in his opening remarks that experts who retail such products believe that it will be "some considerable time" before the download of film overtakes the purchase and rental of DVDs, I counsel that that "considerable time" could be considerably shortened when one considers, for example, YouTube, which grew from nothing to being a global company in 18 months.
To pick up on the comments of the right hon. Member for Leicester, East about the Byron report, which focuses on keeping children safe in a digital world, I am genuinely interested in the Under-Secretary's thoughts about how and whether content should be regulated online. As he knows, an increasing number of video distributors submit their films for classification to the BBC for an online rating, but obviously more unscrupulous dealers do not do that. The legislation does nothing to ensure that there are any sanctions against people who distribute videos online.
The opportunity to respond to a Second Reading debate for the first time from the Front Bench has been thoroughly enjoyable. It has been a rollercoaster ride. There were a couple of clashes with Mr. Speaker, who took the punchlines of my best jokes, but I hope that I have covered the ground comprehensively and shown the reasons for the Opposition's support for the Government's fast-tracking the Bill today.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr. Vaizey. I congratulate him on his maiden Second Reading speech from the Front Bench. It was fascinating and I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you were not present for the whole contribution. I feel-and I am sure the House feels-that we know so much more about the hon. Gentleman, especially his encyclopaedic knowledge of all the films and videos that have been produced in the past 25 years.
It must be a Minister's worst nightmare to arrive at his desk in Whitehall to be told by civil servants that an important Act is effectively illegal. An Act is an Act, as the Minister has said, but the news in respect of this Act was that it had not passed through the necessary European legislation hoops and that therefore the prosecutions under it for the past 26 years were, in effect, invalid. I do not know whether the Minister who is present was the Minister who was told that news, but if so, I would love to have been in his office as he received the advice. I must commend him, however, as I think he has dealt with this situation in an extremely calm and cool manner throughout, from how he responded to the first announcements just before Christmas to the way in which he has presented the Bill to the House. It is right for the Government to use this special method to try to get the legislation through the House, because the worst possible thing to do on discovering that an Act of Parliament is not, in fact, enforceable would be to allow that Act to remain on the statute book and individuals and companies to be prosecuted, and then to try to work out at a later stage exactly what to do about that very unfortunate circumstance.
The Minister has given us an assurance that the Government have brought the matter before the House as best they could in the circumstances. We will therefore deal with all the Bill's stages this afternoon, and, judging by the number of Members attending this debate, we should deal with them speedily. By doing so, we might provide more time for discussion of the Digital Economy Bill, as the hon. Member for Wantage said.
In common with every other Member who has spoken thus far, I of course agree that we need to correct the error made 26 years ago, and I commend the Minister on not seeking to make party political points about why it occurred, as this could have happened to any Minister. We do not expect Ministers to have encyclopaedic knowledge of how the European Union works. Ministers operate in accordance with the advice given to them, and clearly over the past 26 years advice was given to Ministers suggesting that the legislation was fully in keeping with European law and was therefore enforceable.
I hope that when the Minister sums up he will tell us in greater detail precisely what will happen to those who have been prosecuted; he alluded to that during the discussion of the allocation of time motion. The question of compensation has been mentioned, and when this was announced I received a telephone call from the home affairs editor of The Times telling me what had happened. There is genuine concern among those who have been prosecuted over the past 26 years as to whether their convictions were valid, whether the sums paid in fines will have to be repaid to them and whether they might be re-prosecuted as a result of the new legislation. I am sure that it will not be retrospective legislation. We cannot say that everybody who has been prosecuted under the 1984 Act will have to be re-prosecuted-we do not know. It is extremely important that there is clarity on such issues if the House is to give the Government the benefit of the doubt and allow them to pass the Bill in the space of one day-or a few hours, in fact.
Let us be clear about what we wish to know. Will those who have been prosecuted be entitled to compensation, and if so, how much will they get? Will they be re-prosecuted? Do their convictions still stand, or are they expunged? What is the precise legal nature of this situation? I am sure that the Minister will have sought the advice of the Attorney-General and that she will have been very clear about where the Government stand in respect of an Act of Parliament that is found to be unenforceable. When the Minister sums up, I hope that he will tell us the answers to those questions.
My second point is about the general debate concerning video games. I am keen not to stray beyond the measures of the Video Recordings Act 1984, but there were some very interesting comments from the Front Benches about their commitment to ensuring that the thriving and innovative video games industry in the United Kingdom, and particularly in London, survives. I am not against what is being proposed, and I have never been in favour of censorship; I have always been very clear that those who are aged 18-plus should be able to buy and watch whatever video games they want. Those who are not sufficiently old should not be able to do so, however, and those retailers who are prosecuted under this Act must be dealt with very severely indeed.
I say that because I disagree with the hon. Member for Wantage, in that I do not believe that watching a film is the same as participating in a video game. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have very young grandchildren, and I have children aged 14 and 12. A huge amount of research has been done on the issue, and it has been found that half of all eight to 11-year-olds use the internet without adult supervision. I do not know how many Members present have children or grandchildren aged between eight and 11, but it is a real worry that a half of those in that age group are not supervised by adults when using the internet.
Some parents take the home computer out of their children's rooms and put it in a room where everyone has access to it so that they can watch over what their children are doing online. Parents have different ways of dealing with that issue, but the fact is that watching a violent film is different from participating in a video game. If a young person gets hold of "Modern Warfare 2", for example, they will be asked to participate in a terrorist attack; they will be asked to shoot at civilians in Moscow airport as part of the game. That is why the Russian Government have banned "Modern Warfare 2"; they felt that in an age when we are trying to educate our children about the need to understand the dangers of extreme violence, we should not place in their hands, under the guise of entertainment, games that allow them to act in a violent way.
I am grateful to the Minister for what he said about the Digital Economy Bill coming before this House soon, and it is always the hope of Ministers that such Bills will come to the House from the other place quickly, but I have counted that we have just 35 working days from now until
The right hon. Gentleman refers to "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2". It is already rated 18 and therefore it is already illegal to sell it to somebody who is under age, without the Digital Economy Bill needing to be passed. I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman on the necessity of passing that Bill, but there are already provisions in place that prevent children from playing that game.
Absolutely, and I would be the last person on earth to question the expertise of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. The hon. Gentleman is right, but there are certain bits of that Bill that it would be helpful if we could implement. That is a recommendation of Tanya Byron. There is absolutely no point in the Government setting up an inquiry and receiving an excellent report from Tanya Byron if they do not then implement the report as a matter of urgency.
I agree with Mr. Foster on this matter. I know that some people believe that the Liberal Democrats exist to provide consensus, but he is true to type, and he has made it clear that if there are bits of the Digital Economy Bill that we can all agree on, we should go ahead and get on with implementing them. If we can implement the Bill currently under discussion as quickly as we are doing, why should we not do so in respect of other measures? That would be far better than leaving decisions on which Bills will get through to an end-of-Session barney behind the Speaker's Chair between the Chief Whips of both sides. That is not the right way to make legislation. I hope that we can move forward on the issue.
The Byron recommendations must be implemented in full, as doing so will help to strengthen what the Government are trying to do enormously. As far as video recordings are concerned, I pay tribute to what the Government have done over the past few years. There has been a huge leap forward since I first took up this issue, along with others, after young Stefan Pakeerah, from Leicester, was stabbed to death in a park in Leicester in circumstances similar to those found in a video game watched by his killer, Warren Leblanc. I know that the judge in that case said that there was no connection, but the mother of the young boy stabbed to death felt very strongly that there was. Following subsequent meetings with two Prime Ministers and many Ministers, the Government have pushed forward on the matter.
I welcome what the Government have done, but it remains the case that any Member of the House can walk into any video store subject to the Video Recordings Act 1984, pick up a box set and see a tiny-it is still tiny-reference to the age limit for those playing the game. Through various campaigns involving people on all sides, we increased the 18 certificate sign from about the size of a 1p piece to probably the size of a 10p or, possibly, 50p piece. Actually, we have always said that, as with cigarette packets, splashed across the front of a violent video game should be the fact that it has adult content-and good luck to over-18s who wish to buy it! That would bring the fact to the attention of retailers who might, sometimes inadvertently, sell the game to someone under the age of 18.
I was interested to hear the statistics put forward by the hon. Member for Wantage on the number of stores that have been prosecuted. I have been after those statistics for some time. They are good news. The last time some mystery shopping was done-Trevor McDonald on one of his ITV programmes sent in a load of under-18 mystery shoppers-they were sold video games for over-18s, but the stores were not prosecuted. I welcome the fact that the figures are quite high. We are going through the bother of trying to get the Bill through quickly, and we should send out a message that legislation passed by the House will be implemented and that those who break the law will be prosecuted.
Through no fault of the Minister, we find ourselves in the position of trying to repeal and re-enact a law originally passed 26 years ago. That is the fault of neither the Minister nor any other individual. The fact is that the Bill is before us today. I hope that we can make rapid progress and, in the near future, discuss the substance of video games and hear from the Minister on Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill.
It is a great honour and privilege to follow Keith Vaz, who serves with such distinction as the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and has a clear personal interest in one of the key issues being debated today-video games. I was particularly delighted that he went out of his way to praise the video games industry. He is absolutely right in doing so: it is a vital part of this country's creative economy, which many people believe could be, with the relevant support, as important to the country's economy as the financial services industries have been. Many people have believed him to be interested only in condemning individual video games-he has gone on several crusades in that respect-so it was good to hear him praising the industry, as well as chastising it for some of the projects it has produced.
I was also pleased that the right hon. Gentleman picked up on a point that I made in an intervention on the Minister. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have done the calculations on the Digital Economy Bill, which makes amendments to the Video Recordings Act 1984, and given the recent announcement that the time allocation in another place will be longer than originally anticipated, it seems highly unlikely that we will be able to get through all the stages of that Bill in this place before the likely date of the general election. Given that there is cross-party support for much of Tanya Byron's excellent report, I hope that the Minister can find ways to ensure that areas on which there is such agreement can be brought forward and put on to the statute book before the election.
I was also pleased to hear the right hon. Gentleman pick up on a point made by Mr. Vaizey, to whom I shall turn in a second, about the successful prosecutions of those who have been selling inappropriate videos to under-age people-to children. It is right and proper that we praise, for example, the many excellent trading standards officers in local authorities around the country who have brought those prosecutions so successfully-if only other cases of under-age sales, such as those of alcohol, were prosecuted with such vigour! However, I am delighted that that is happening in this case.
I am always delighted to be involved in debates in which the hon. Gentleman has participated. I confess that it came as a complete surprise to hear that this was his maiden Second Reading speech as a shadow Minister. He seems to have been in his place as a shadow Minister for so long; it demonstrates how scarce is the legislation on matters within the portfolio of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Had we been allowed, many of us would have liked to see legislation such as the Heritage Protection Bill, which would have given him an earlier outing on his party's Front Bench.
The hon. Gentleman occupied the crease for 36 minutes, during which he did a great deal, rightly, to praise the British Board of Film Classification for its work. However, he failed to praise it also for its work in speech writing-I recognised quite a large chunk of his speech from the excellent briefing notes that the organisation provided to all hon. Members likely to be taking part in the debate. However, he raised some important points, and I do not wish to repeat many of them, given that he occupied the crease for so long. We know why we are here and we know what the problem is.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Minister was generous in not seeking to gain party political advantage on where the error occurred, whether in 1984, in 1993 when the first revisions took place, or in 1994 when the second revisions took place. One might have expected the concern now discovered-about the provisions not having been reported to the European Union-to have been discovered at that time. Nevertheless, let us praise the current civil servants in the Minister's Department for finding the problem and helping the Minister and his predecessor to find a way to deal with it swiftly.
Swiftness is the essence of why we are here today. It is vital that we get back on to the statute book, as quickly as possible, legislation that provides protection against the sale of inappropriate material to children, and counters the ability of people to sell pirate DVDs and so on. We have all made it clear that we are keen to support the Minister in his desire to fast-track the legislation back on to the statute book and then, if there is sufficient time-I am increasingly concerned about that-to make subsequent amendments to it in light of, for instance, the introduction of the PEGI system for video games. There is support for that on both sides of the House.
Reference has been made to the case for amending the Video Recordings Act itself, something that we could have done today. It might have delayed proceedings, but it could have been an option. The hon. Member for Wantage made a point about some of his party's proposals for changes to the legislation. I would like an assurance that the issues raised will be dealt with in the Digital Economy Bill, so that there will not be a need to amend the Bill that is before us.
I share the concern expressed by the current shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Mr. Hunt, about DVDs and videos relating to sport, religion and music that do not carry ratings but which often contain material that many of us would think inappropriate, in particular for sale to young people. Such videos include self-mutilation, erotic dancing, sex toys, drug use and so on.
The Minister's officials have made clear a point that was not picked up by the hon. Member for Wantage. They have said:
"Music, sports or religious videos lose their exemption from classification if they depict sexual activity, mutilation, gross violence or other practices likely to cause offence," and that in those circumstances,
"it is for the appropriate enforcement authorities to take action."
The implication is that there is no need for an amendment, because other bits of legislation could be used to prosecute people distributing such material. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that issue, because it is one that those in probably all parts of the House want to be resolved. My concern is to find out the means by which it is going to be resolved, or whether the Minister believes, as his officials appear to be saying, that there is no problem and that action can be taken under existing legislation.
I will not dwell on my second point for any length of time, because it has already been raised by the right hon. Gentleman and Philip Davies, who is no longer in his place, despite the fact that the race meeting to which he was hoping to go today has been cancelled because of bad weather. The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the issue of the degree of complacency-I choose my words carefully-that the Minister appears to have about people who have already been prosecuted under the Video Recordings Act 1984, which we now understand was not correctly enforced.
The Minister seemed to imply that the reason why he had been advised that there would be no redress was that people would be too late to make an appeal. However, as the right hon. Gentleman made clear-I think that the hon. Member for Wantage made a similar point-if the legislation was never enforced correctly, we are not talking about an appeal; rather, I suspect that we are talking about a very different legal process. Others have asked, and I, too, would be grateful if the Minister could give us clearer assurances about why he and his officials are correct in this matter.
If the law is logical-the Minister will know more than we do about that, because he will have consulted the Attorney-General-and there was, in effect, no conviction because there was no proper legislation, the money from any fines would have to be handed back. If anyone received more than a fine-I am not sure what the penalties are-there would have to be additional compensation.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a compelling point. Indeed, I noticed some months ago that he was reported in one newspaper as saying that
"if the act has never been brought into force, prosecutions under it are void. You cannot prosecute someone and convict them on the basis of legislation that has never been in force".
That seems very compelling indeed. I confess that I have so far heard nothing from the Minister to assure me that the right hon. Gentleman, with his great experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, is wrong.
The right hon. Gentleman is distinguished in many regards, but we will leave it to the equally distinguished, relatively new Minister to come up with an answer to those questions.
I want to pick up a point that I mentioned in an intervention and to take it a stage further. As I have said, the Minister rightly praised the many responsible retailers and producers who have continued to behave as if the 1984 Act were still in force. I add my congratulations to them. However, he also pointed out that there are some problems developing. The first, which I mentioned earlier, is that the number of firms seeking classification has fallen dramatically. Year on year to September last year, the reduction was 11 per cent., bearing in mind that for most of the year it was assumed that the 1984 Act was in force. It is therefore not surprising that by October the figure was 20 per cent. or that by the middle of November it was 38 per cent. There was therefore a significant reduction in the number of people who wanted their material classified.
Indeed, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because when he made that very point earlier, I looked at the briefing and intervened on him. He is absolutely right.
The other point, which has not been touched on so far, is that as I understand it-from the same, excellent brief from the BBFC-a number of councils and their trading standards officers are being pursued through the courts for carrying out what they thought in good faith were statutory obligations under the VRA. Clearly they were wrong: if the VRA was not in force and they were seeking to prosecute people for breaches of a non-existent Act, one can understand that those people might be aggrieved and seek redress from them. My question for the Minister, therefore, is, what assistance are the Government providing to local authorities in that position?
The third point that has already been touched on-again, by the Minister and others-is about the large and growing number of examples of places around the country where breaches, as they would have been if the law had been in force, of the VRA are taking place. The Minister cited Bournemouth, Conwy and Milton Keynes, while the hon. Member for Wantage referred to a number of other places. In Cheltenham, for example, law enforcement officers cannot pursue a newsagent selling R18 and unrated porn DVDs that are displayed above an ice cream display cabinet. In Manchester, trading standards officers have dropped three VRA cases involving 3,000 videos.
However, there are two examples that I want to draw to the Minister's attention in particular. The first is from Powys, where trading standards officers are unable to pursue seven cases of under-age video games sales. The other example is from Brent, where trading standards officers are unable to prosecute three high street stores for selling age-restricted video games to children. In both cases, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we are particularly concerned about the sale of inappropriate material to under-age young people.
Where those prosecutions have been dropped, I wonder whether the Department has taken note of its own explanatory notes, which point out that, even with the 1984 Act no longer on the statute book, there are other bits of legislation, such as the Obscene Publications Act 1959, that in certain circumstances could be used in respect of the sale of material to under-age people. Being interested in that point, I looked at the equally excellent briefing produced by the Library. In paragraph 2.2 of that briefing, the Minister will find the following reference to how the 1959 Act might be used in such circumstances:
"The 1959 Act proscribes the distribution, circulation, sale, the giving or loan of obscene material. A point to make here is that at least some successful prosecutions under the 1984 Act could well have been made under the 1959 Act: pornographic material that might be legally supplied to an adult could be obscene if given to a child."
The briefing then quotes the case law on that issue, but my question is, given that there are, and will continue to be, outstanding cases where prosecutions could not now be taken forward under the re-established VRA, will the Department seek to provide support to those local authorities concerned, to see whether they could use other bits of existing legislation on the statue book to help bring prosecutions against those who have sought to abuse the loophole created by the error made back in 1984?
I made it clear-I repeat the point now-that the Minister is absolutely right to get the Bill on to the statute book as quickly as possible, in order to return the protection that the VRA brings and enable the BBFC and all the enforcement authorities to continue their excellent work to date. For that reason, we give the Minister our full support and hope that we get the Bill through quickly today.
It is a pleasure to follow all four previous speakers in what has been a remarkably harmonious debate. I do not intend to change that. This is an important measure, and I welcome the fact that the Government have moved so swiftly to close the loophole that has been identified. I will not dwell on how it came about, but I merely observe that the Government are very fond of blaming almost every ill in society on the actions of the previous Government, and this is one of the very few examples where there may be some merit in that claim.
I hope that the Minister will address the questions raised by the previous speakers about the consequences of the loophole, because I share their concern about the status of those who have been convicted over the course of the past 25 years and the possibility of their bringing actions for what now appear to have been unlawful convictions. I hope that he will spend a little more time on that subject when he responds.
I wish to make a few observations about the Video Recordings Act 1984. I always approach any such legislation with some suspicion, as I am fundamentally opposed to censorship. I believe that in a free society it is up to adults to choose what they wish to see, but there are two important qualifications to that. The first is that there will always be some material that is so unacceptable in its violent or explicitly sexual content that it is deemed to be damaging to people to view it. I accept that, and some examples have been given in the debate.
I shall return to that matter, but perhaps more important is the fact that while adults are free to choose, we have always accepted that children require protection. I join right hon. and hon. Members in paying tribute to the work of the BBFC. It is in the area of age classification that some of the most difficult decisions have to be taken. The film that required perhaps more cuts than any other, some time ago now, was "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles", because the distributor was keen that it should be given a certificate that meant children were able to see it. The BBFC felt that it contained inappropriate material, and there was lengthy negotiation. A lot of the controversy about films such as "The Dark Knight" and "Casino Royale" is about whether they should appropriately be 12 or 15.
The virtue of the 1984 Act was that it extended that protection, which already existed in cinemas, to viewing in the home. The Minister gave the statistics on the extent to which viewing in the home has taken off in the past 20 years. When the Act was originally introduced back in 1984, it was accompanied by a degree of what one can only call hysteria about video nasties, and it is worth reflecting on what has happened to some of the most notorious examples of films that were widely cited at that time.
The then Minister, Mr. David Mellor, named three films in the course of the debate. The first was "The Driller Killer", which was banned after the passage of the 1984 Act but then released uncut in 2002, and last night I checked and found that it is available on Amazon for £3.98. The second was "Zombie Flesh Eaters". That, too, was banned under the Act but then released uncut in 2005 and can now be found on Amazon at £5.98. The third was "I Spit On Your Grave", which was also on the list of prosecutable movies until 2001 but was then released, although with substantial cuts made by the BBFC, and is now widely available. Perhaps the most remarkable example is a film that was on the Director of Public Prosecutions' list of films that were banned, Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead", which at the time was regarded as wholly unacceptable but, indicating how tastes change, two years ago was given away free with copies of The Sun as a promotional move.
There is no question but that tastes change and we have become more liberal, which I welcome. However, as I said, there will always be films that go beyond what is generally regarded as acceptable. The Minister mentioned one particular film, "Grotesque". Two films were banned by the BBFC in 2008. The first was "Murder-Set-Pieces", described as having scenes in which
"a psychopathic sexual serial killer...is seen raping, torturing and murdering his victims".
The second has the unlikely title of "The Texas Vibrator Massacre"-I leave its contents to the imagination of hon. Members. I shall return to those two films in a moment.
My hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey made the important point that there are loopholes in the existing legislation, which existed for good reasons at the time. It was not regarded as possible that a video concerning music or sport could be unacceptable. That loophole has undoubtedly been exploited. I hosted a dinner that the BBFC gave in the House just before Christmas, at which it showed us examples of some of the material that is now available in music videos and sports games that does not require certification because of the loophole in the 1984 Act. I understand why the Government did not feel able to address that matter in the Bill, but I share the wish that has been expressed that the loophole should be closed, and I hope that it will be in the Digital Economy Bill.
The second main point that I wish to make is that at the time of the passage of the 1984 Act, the world was completely different. Mr. Graham Bright, the Member who moved Second Reading, said that he defined a video recording as
"a video tape or video disc. It is thus a physical product."-[ Hansard, 11 November 1983; Vol. 48, c. 525.]
Of course, it is now not necessarily a physical product. More and more video is being made available through online distribution, which at the time perhaps could not even have been conceived. We are seeking to address that through moves such as those by the BBFC to impose a voluntary system of regulation, but the films that we are concerned about are now very widely available. I return to the two that I mentioned, "Murder-Set-Pieces" and "The Texas Vibrator Massacre". I checked last night and found that both those films are widely available through file sharing sites. An internet search for either with the words "download" or "bit torrent" will bring up any number of sites from which one can obtain them. Equally, they are available through cyberlockers. Both are on Megaupload and RapidShare and can be accessed without any attempt to verify the age of the person downloading them. There is serious concern about how we can continue to protect young people when it is now so easy to obtain such films.
We will debate the matter at greater length when we come to the measures against piracy through illegal file sharing that the Government are proposing to take in the Digital Economy Bill. It is worth remembering that it is not just protection of copyright that is at stake when we consider file sharing. There is equally the concern that it is being used to circumvent the protections that the House has put in place. In the most extreme cases, as I am sure the Minister will be aware, child pornography is being widely distributed through illegal file sharing. That is another reason why I share with other hon. Members the view that it is important that we get the Digital Economy Bill on to the statute book.
Having said that, I agree with the Minister that the majority of distribution of video content will still be through physical product for the foreseeable future, so it is certainly important that the Bill should be passed today and that we should reinstate the protections that we thought were already in place. However, there is a danger that we will be seen to be bolting the front door when the back door is wide open, and we will have to consider that in future.
That leads me to the more general conclusion that I suspect that there is nothing that this House can do to legislate to prevent the distribution of material online from sites that may be located on the other side of the world. When we consider what it is appropriate for people to view, we must remember that that is a matter for adults to decide. The most effective means that we can have to protect children is for parents to exercise responsibility, watch carefully what their children are doing and ensure that they are not obtaining access to content that could be damaging to them. I support the Bill, but I fear that it is beginning to look increasingly old-fashioned and outmoded given the extraordinary pace of development throughout the video sector.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply to the debate-and what a pleasure it has been. What a bijou gathering of wisdom and experience this is. Two Select Committee Chairmen, the venerable battler from Bath and my old friend from Wantage have all, in their different ways, made valuable, insightful and often entertaining contributions. Would that it were always thus.
We have already congratulated the British Board of Film Classification on the job that it does, by which we meant the job of classifying films, but I think I ought also to congratulate it on the job that it does in lobbying Members of Parliament and providing briefing for these debates. Rarely can the entire participating body in a debate have been so thoroughly and extensively briefed by a single organisation. I visited the BBFC's offices fairly recently and heard its arguments about one or two aspects that we may not see in exactly the same way, but I think we are in accord on most of the issues that Members, in their different ways, have discussed today: that is, the central issues. Let me deal with a few of them, hopefully not leaving out too much but also not using up too much time.
Mr. Vaizey could not quite resist making the anti-European point that the 1984 Act was clearly a single market liberalisation measure leading up to the Single European Act of 1985-that crowning, triumphant, extraordinary piece of Thatcherite European legislation that is the rock on which the European single market is founded, and the basis on which it continues to exist and derive so much prosperity for our countries and our Union. He mentioned several times-and other Members mentioned it as well-that the Cabinet Office had been looking into the issues. I cannot give him any more detail of who in the Cabinet Office has been doing what, but I can tell him that the need to ensure that the omission was an isolated incident and will never happen again is being taken very seriously.
I agree with Mr. Foster, who praised the zeal and efficiency of the DCMS officials who finally discovered the omission and set us on the road to where we have arrived today. If we are not keen-as I am not-to get into the business of allocating blame for causing the problem in the first place, I am sure we can all unite in wholehearted praise for the people who identified it and are helping us to solve it.
The issue of appeals and past convictions is a difficult one. It is not as simple as some Members seem to think. None of the questions involved has been tested in court. To date, the courts have dealt with no attempts to set aside past prosecutions. Successful prosecutions issued before the failure to refer the 1984 Act to the Commission were dealt with through due process, and as such they still stand. The courts are very reluctant to set aside convictions made years ago when the offence was proved and the defendant found guilty under an Act of Parliament passed by the House, only the enforceability of which has been invalidated by a technicality. The Act remains an Act of Parliament. It remains in force. Only the ability of the authorities to enforce is affected by the failure to notify under the technical standards directive.
We think that claims for compensation are very unlikely to succeed. There is no automatic right to compensation, and any legal right to it in these circumstances would be unprecedented. I understand the prism through which Members have viewed the issue. The hon. Member for Wantage claimed that I had been given bad advice. He described the move from the current boxed physical product world to the online world, and said that he was minded to give me better advice on that than I was currently receiving.
My hon. Friend has taken definitive legal advice from the Attorney-General, has he not? The fact that the granting of compensation in such circumstances is unprecedented does not mean that it is not right. Will he confirm that he was given that advice?
I have taken a great deal of my advice from my officials. I cannot tell my right hon. Friend from whom-in which other parts of Government and which parts of the Government Legal Service-they took advice, but their advice to me has been very clear. Although it is impossible to be certain, there is very little doubt on the issue.
My hon. Friend's officials may not be legally qualified. They may be the greatest people in the world, but my hon. Friend is a Minister in the Government and the Attorney-General is the chief Law Officer. I am not trying to trip my hon. Friend up; I am merely trying to establish the facts. If there were a problem relating to legality, surely the Department would have contacted the Attorney-General. It is not a secret. A question could have been tabled to the Attorney-General. Did the Government go to the Attorney-General and ask for her advice?
As I have just told my right hon. Friend, I took advice from my officials. By "my officials" I mean the legal officials in the DCMS. As I have said, their advice was very clear. They also made clear to me that they had taken plenty of legal advice from many different parts of the Government, and that, although there could not be certainty when there was no precedent, there was very little doubt. I am sorry, but I cannot tell my right hon. Friend whether the officials questioned the Attorney-General personally and specifically.
I am not sure whether I have fully covered the question of appeals and compensation, but in the absence of further interventions, I shall proceed to answer the questions about the potential for insertion of what might be described as the PEGI clauses of the Digital Economy Bill, which introduce the PEGI European classification system for video games in this country into this Bill.
One of the fundamental reasons why the House has considered the Bill, and why Opposition parties in both Houses have indicated that they consider it appropriate to fast-track it, is that we are not amending an existing piece of legislation which has been in force for 25 years. If the two main Opposition parties had come to us in advance and said "We think it important to include the PEGI clauses", we might have been able to discuss the matter, but I do not think that that happened. We needed to act swiftly, and, legitimately, to use the special fast-track procedure. Part of the reason for concertina-ing the House's usual precautionary procedures was that we were making no change whatsoever. The point is that we need to get the legislation repealed and revived so that it can be amended during the passage of the Digital Economy Bill.
I apologise for asking a question the answer to which I should really know. I accept the Minister's point as to why the Government have not adopted the PEGI system amendment in this Bill so that we could fast-track it, but can he give me an absolute assurance that, if necessary, the appropriate consultation with the EU is taking place in respect of the PEGI amendment that is being discussed in another place?
As things currently stand, we are not minded to accept that amendment, although I am not averse to talking about it. I take note of the uniformity of view on that matter, on the Labour Benches anyway. However, I know from my recent visit to the BBFC that it takes the strong view that we should make this change, and the BBFC is very influential in these matters.
I take that point. I do not have a strong, dogmatic view on this. I have considered it, and on balance I have come down on the side that says that given that it is about where we draw the line, the vast majority of content in music and sport videos does not need to be classified in this way, to the extent that it would be an intolerable burden. That is a reasonable position, and that is where I stand. We are not currently minded to accept an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill to that end, although I do not take a dogmatic view on it.
Mr. Whittingdale kindly referred to that. There is still scope for prosecution under the existing legislation because the exemptions apply only up to a certain level. There are several categories of content, at a certain point of which the exemption lapses. Roughly speaking, something like an 18-level content in a music video would need to be classified.
Hon. Gentlemen mentioned one or two examples of what seem like misclassifications. However, that is the road of argument by second-guessing, anecdote and example, and it does not take us very far. The issue would be about whether the video had been classified appropriately. The power already exists to classify extreme or 18-ish-rated music videos. Their comments are reasonable, but the fundamental point is that the place for us to have this discussion-I have no doubt that we will do so at great length and in considerable detail-is in the Committee proceedings on the Digital Economy Bill.
Several hon. Gentlemen-including the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, with particular erudition and wisdom-talked about the internet and a future in which it will be incredibly difficult to regulate and legislate for these things. I take all those points but merely restate what I said in my opening remarks. The boxed market is still huge and will be so for a considerable period of time, and that is why it is so important that we use this procedure to close the loophole so that we protect the public in general, but particularly children, from the irresponsible retailing of unsuitable and inappropriate material.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).