Video Nasties: Blair suggested guidelines that won compromise: Home Secretary bought off Tory rebels at last-ditch Commons meetings after Labour ultimatum

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The Independent Online
THE TORY rebels who threatened to defeat the Government over video nasties were bought off by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, at a hurriedly arranged series of meetings at the Commons.

Mr Howard called as many as possible of the 80 Tory MPs who had backed an amendment by David Alton, the Liberal Democrat MP, to meetings in a ministerial conference room near the chamber a few hours before the debate.

He saw nearly 50 Tory MPs in three separate meetings in the conference room. Mr Howard told the Tory backbenchers that Mr Alton had agreed to withdraw his amendment in return for a pledge by the Home Secretary to table a government amendment in the Lords.

The Home Secretary said the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) would be required to have regard to statutory guidelines in deciding on classifications. The guidelines would embody the wording of the Alton amendment, which sought to ban videos which 'present an inappropriate model for children or are likely to cause psychological harm to a child'.

He also told the Tory MPs that the penalties for shopkeepers breaking the laws on 15 and 18 certificates would be increased to include prison sentences of up to six months or two years, for supplying films which were banned. That was enough to satisfy the Tory MPs, and the rebellion was over.

It came after a busy morning of negotiations between the Home Secretary, key ministerial colleagues, leading Tory MPs, and the Opposition leaders.

His first meeting at the Home Office was with Tony Blair, shadow Home Secretary, who played a crucial role in the compromise.

The Independent has learnt that Mr Blair suggested the statutory guidelines, embodying the Alton amendment. Mr Howard was warned by Mr Blair that unless he met the demands of the MPs who supported the Alton amendment, he would advise Labour MPs to support it on a free vote. That left the Government facing defeat.

The Home Secretary, who had made it clear to the BBFC on Monday that he wanted them to take tougher action on censorship, held a private meeting with Sir Ivan Lawrence, one of the leaders of the Tory rebellion.

Sir Ivan, a leading right-wing Tory, is chairman of two key law and order committees: the Tory backbench committee on home affairs, and the cross-party Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs. He is also a leading member of the Thatcherite 92 Group, making him a power-broker on law and order with Tory backbenchers.

His support was vital, and he gave it, when he heard the terms of the Home Secretary's compromise. Mr Howard also consulted Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, on the handling of the board, and the need to preserve its freedom to judge films on artistic merit, while toughening the censorship rules.

Armed with the basis of a deal, Mr Howard next went to Downing Street to square the details with the Prime Minister and key ministers. Also at the meeting were Lord Wakeham, chairman of the Cabinet EDH committee on home affairs, who had circulated a Cabinet paper on the video nasties issue; Tony Newton, Leader of the House; and Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip.

The ad-hoc committee gave the Home Secretary the agreement he needed. That was the compromise he put to the backbenchers.

(Photograph omitted)

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