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

8.51 p.m.

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

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

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

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I would not extend

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the right to every citizen in the land, but to designated organisations to whom the Home Secretary would be able to designate by letter in precisely the way that is being done this evening.

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

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

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

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

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

I do not want to be complacent. The fact that one cannot prove an assertion does not mean that it is not true. In such cases one has to fall back on common sense and one's best judgment. I cannot believe that an unrelieved diet of video nasties or the kinds of games mentioned by some noble Lords, is good for either

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individual character or society. Here the finger of suspicion points to households and their cultural setting which allow this diet to take place.

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

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

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

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

9 p.m.

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

That is the rationale behind the classification system. Both the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, spoke about classification and the deficiencies of what happens in the home. I suggest that that is not an attack on the classification system because whatever the classification system one establishes, however rigorous or liberal, ultimately I cannot envisage any control by law which would make parents not allow their children to watch

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inappropriate material. Added to that, one should not overlook the fact to which the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, referred, that there are many programmes on the television late at night containing material such as we are considering. Happily, I am ignorant of it because I always go to sleep early--often in the middle of television programmes which seem to have a hypnotic and narcoleptic effect on me, quite unlike your Lordships' House, of course! A good deal more truly offensive material is shown on the television--it can be recorded, and frequently is--than is available on classified videos.

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

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

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

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

As the noble Viscount said, times have changed. Some centuries ago, the material available to his noble ancestor would have been books, and books alone, in his library at Great Tew when he rightly said,

    "On rainy days, I pity unlearned men".

Most young people and children now do not derive their images, thoughts and entertainment from books. That is unfortunate, but we have to deal with it. The truth is that

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society generally, in terms of what is available, is more violent and more sexually open. We have to deal with that. I believe that most of your Lordships have concluded that the balance is not too far wrong.

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

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

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

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

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for another day. I am most obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for giving us this opportunity.

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