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8.36 p.m.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I thought it a complicated intellectual argument. He may have been right; he may have been wrong. But it seems to me that we have moved on from there and the fuss which has arisen is interesting.

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

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

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

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

However, what worries me--I hope the noble Lord who is to answer the debate will be able to give guidance on this point--is the way in which the Home Secretary intervened. He felt that he had been let down

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by the two vice presidents of the British Board of Film Classification in not objecting to this new classification of videos, even though the videos were to be shown in restricted circumstances, and that he expected them to be the eyes and ears of the Government. I find it worrying that he should have expected that.

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

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

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

We have these obligations. Other countries seem to order their affairs in a different way so far as concerns sex. In France it seems that all systems are go and no one seems to complain. Pornography is regularly available. It is available on Canal-Plus at night. One night when I was at a film festival in France and could not sleep I turned on my television in the early hours of the morning. I turned it off within seven seconds. What I saw in seven seconds gave me the kind of nightmares that my small child now has as a result of whatever happened at school that day. Other countries too--Holland is an example--have adjusted themselves to a measure of freedom in this area. They have obviously concluded that the effect on children and the population as a whole does not require serious attention. We do not

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share that view in this country. I certainly do not share that view as regards violence. It is a very serious question. I am very thankful that we have had the opportunity of discussing it. I look forward very much to the amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill which comes to us in the middle of this month. Again, we shall not have enough time to develop a lot of very complicated issues which arise in this area.

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

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