The Video Recordings Bill completed all Parliamentary stages in the House of Commons on 6 January 2010 without opposition and has now passed to the House of Lords for consideration.
During the short debate Keith Vaz got a few whinges in:
Keith Vaz (Leicester East, Labour):
Does the Minister intend, in his speech, to touch on the Byron review and the Government’s commitment to prevent violent video games 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.
Siôn Simon (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media and Sport; Birmingham, Erdington, Labour):
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.
Keith Vaz: 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?
Siôn Simon: 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.
And on the subject of exempting games and sports videos from censorship:
Edward Vaizey (Shadow Minister (Arts), Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative):
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.
Keith Vaz: 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.
Edward Vaizey: I continue to assume that the right hon. Gentleman is against hardcore 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 Motley 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 Motley 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.
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.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East, Labour):
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 a 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 31 March. Nobody knows when the next general election will be held, of course, but there are only 35 complete working days in which legislation can be addressed in this House.
John Whittingdale (Maldon & East Chelmsford, Conservative):
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.
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.
Don Foster (Bath, Liberal Democrat):
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.
And on the subject of online distribution:
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 a 12 or a 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 Prosecution’s 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 that 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.
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.
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.
John Whittingdale: Is it the Government’s intention to accept the other amendment that has been tabled to the Digital Economy Bill, which would remove the exemption for sport and music videos?
Siôn Simon: 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.
Edward Vaizey: I should remind the Minister that on Tuesday one of his own Back Benchers, Mr. Dismore, is introducing a ten-minute Bill that would bring about this exemption, so there is all-party support for it.
Siôn Simon: 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.