The Home Secretary's 11th-hour compromise, reached after hurried meetings with about 50 of the Tory rebels, the Prime Minister, key ministers and opposition leaders, averted a damaging government defeat. But the handling of the retreat was seen at Westminster as undermining the competence of the Government and the Prime Minister's attempts to rebuild his authority.
One rebel, a former minister, said: 'They should have seen the trouble brewing long before this. Before Easter, the official line was 'bugger off'.'
The crackdown on 'video nasties' includes: imprisonment for up to six months for shopkeepers who break the codes for 15- and 18-rated videos by renting them to under-age children; imprisonment for up to two years for those illegally supplying banned videos to children; tighter use of existing ratings for 15 and 18, and non-certification of films by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC); and statutory guidelines requiring the censors to 'have regard to' preventing children viewing videos that are likely to cause 'pyschological harm to a child' or which present 'an inappropriate model for children'.
Mr Howard denied that he had made a U-turn and said he had wanted tougher action. He had opposed as unworkable an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, tabled by the Liberal Democrat David Alton, which more than 80 Tory rebels threatened to support. However, the new statutory guidelines will reflect the wording of the amendment, which Mr Alton withdrew after yesterday's deal.
As the deal was approved by MPs, Mr Howard told the Commons it could not be made retrospective so as to ban horror films already given a classification, including Child's Play 3, but the classification could be open to legal challenge.
The Independent has learnt that the new guidelines were suggested by Tony Blair, Labour's shadow Home Secretary, at a private meeting at the Home Office with Mr Howard.
Mr Howard insisted that the guidelines were not the same as the Alton proposal because they would preserve the right of the BBFC to allow a violent film to be given a certificate for video viewing on grounds of artistic merit. A Home Office source said: 'What Michael objected to was a situation in which the censors would have no discretion at all and would be forced to ban everything which would not be acceptable for children.'
Mr Howard said: 'I have always made it clear I share the concern of those who want to ban videos which contain gratuitous violence but we have to have an approach that is workable.'
The measures, which go further than the Alton proposals by providing for jail sentences, will be introduced as a government amendment to the Bill in the House of Lords.
The public will be able to seek judicial review of BBFC rulings; the board will be able to defend on grounds of artistic merit its action in giving a certificate to a film including violent scenes.
James Ferman, director of the BBFC, said: 'We are delighted that the amendment has been withdrawn - there have been great sighs of relief. We will have to make our guidelines more explicit - there will be clear obligations. The kind of videos that will be affected most are those containing mild horror or violence that might appeal to children. There will be more cuts in violence and higher classification but we will retain our discretion . . . . Films like Schindler's List or Dances With Wolves should not be at risk.
He said the board would have to become stricter with films that might appeal to teenagers because 'there are a small minority of parents in Britain that are simply not parents'.
However, there remained some doubts last night over the extent to which children will be stopped from seeing 'video nasties' in the home. Ministers will be stepping up efforts to persuade parents to prevent their children from viewing videos with excessive sex or violence.
The European Commission has warned the National Heritage Department that it is preparing a legal challenge against Britain's ban on satellite broadcasts of pornographic films from EU member states, according to Sir Teddy Taylor, the Tory MP for Southend East.
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