House of Commons Select Committee on European Scrutiny
Draft Council Resolution on the protection of consumers, in particular young people, through the labelling of certain leisure and recreational products according to
16.1 The Spanish Presidency recently submitted to the Working Party on Consumer Information and Protection a draft Council Resolution on the problem of age-labelling leisure and recreation
products in the EU. It is due to be discussed by the Internal Market, Consumers and Tourism Council on 1 March.
16.2 The intention of the Resolution is to recognise the risk that minors could be
exposed to inappropriate material contained in video games and computer games, and to stress the importance of giving consumers access to clear information about content in order to minimise that risk. The proposal also aims to encourage the co-operative
work on rating and labelling that is going on within the industry, together with other work to identify good practices.
16.3 In forwarding the text that emerged from the Working Party to the Committee
of Permanent Representatives (COREPER), on 7 February, the Council Secretariat includes some compromise proposals put forward by the Presidency, including one from the UK. The Secretariat notes that a few outstanding questions remain to be resolved, the
main ones being:
- whether this Resolution should cover products other than video and computer games, with some Member States wanting to extend it to cover films, DVDs and videocassettes
- the terms in which the Commission should be invited to proceed.
The draft text
16.4 The draft Resolution starts by noting: the wide and increasing availability of video games and computer games; that interactive leisure software contained in video
games and in computer games on sale or for rent in shops or distributed through the internet constitutes an important and growing market .
16.5 As a compromise, the Presidency suggests that the penultimate
paragraph of the Resolution should welcome the undertaking by the Commission to carry out a study on rating practices used in the Community and notes that this study also covers other products such as films, DVDs and videocassettes which may also
pose [...] problems as regards the protection of minors and the functioning of the internal market .
16.6 The Resolution:
- stresses the importance for consumers of having access to clear information;
- notes that many Member States have rating systems according to age on the basis of diverse criteria, reflecting cultural diversity and different national and local sensibilities;
- considers that the current co-operation at national and Community level in the interactive leisure software industry on rating and labelling "contributes to an effective protection of minors and to the realisation of the full
potential of the industry and underlines in this connection the importance of continuing to involve the other interested parties, in particular consumer associations and representatives of parents and young people".
- acknowledges that self-regulation is "one of the adequate means" to support age-rating systems..on its own or as a complement to measures implemented by Member States;
- invites Member States and the Commission, "each according to their own competences, to intensify co-operation with all interested parties, such as industry, the creators of contents, consumers and young people, on the
exchange of information and experience, in order to identify best practices".
16.7 Two alternatives are given for paragraph 12. The Presidency-preferred text reads:
Invites the Commission, on the basis of the results of the above-mentioned cooperation, as well as of the
results of the above-mentioned study, to assess where appropriate the need for a common method for the assessment of the contents of interactive leisure software in video games and computer games, as well as for a common rating and labelling system,
coming forward where appropriate, with proposals ".
16.8 The UK-preferred text reads:
Invites the Commission, drawing on the results of the
above-mentioned co-operation, as well as of the results of the above-mentioned study, to keep under review developments in the construction and use of various methods for the assessment of the contents of video games and computer games, reporting back to
the Council, and coming forward, where appropriate and if necessary, with recommendations for further action at Community level .
The Government's view
16.9 In his Explanatory Memorandum of 7 February, the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr Kim Howells) describes the UK system of classification for computer games, which he says is unique in European terms. It relies on self-regulation "underscored" by the 1984 Video Recording Act. With certain exceptions this Act made it illegal to sell or rent a video unless it had been classified by the British Board of Film Classification (
BBFC) and to sell or rent to someone below the specified age any video with an age-restricted classification.
16.10 Following the introduction of CD-based games, the Video Standards
Council (VSC) began discussions with the main trade body, the European Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), with a view to developing a voluntary age-rating system for games exempt from the 1984 Act. A self-regulatory system based on criteria
agreed between the VSC and ELSPA was introduced in1993. The Minister says that the VSC actively monitors the system: "Inter alia, it views all games assessed by the industry as suitable for 15+ or 18+ users, and carries out random viewing of games
in the 3+ and 11+ categories."
16.11 He comments:
While the Presidency is right in regarding this as a serious issue, it
must be seen in perspective. Under the UK system since 1994, 70% of games have attracted a 3+ rating (suitable for all ages), nearly 90% have been rated as suitable for children under 15, and less than 1% of games have warranted an18+ rating; also since
1994, only 5% of games have lost exemption and have therefore been submitted to the BBFC for legal classification (and half of these were interactive pornography products not made for sale in high street games stores).
"Over the last year the industry has itself been holding discussions in an attempt to establish a pan-European voluntary system for the age-rating of games. It has become
apparent that there are large differences between countries in terms of cultural expectations in this field - the issues of sex and nudity are not treated as seriously in other countries as they are in the UK, and the issue of bad language does not
surface as a problem outside the UK and Ireland. Notwithstanding these differences, we understand that steady progress has been made in finding common ground. Moreover, the European Commission has already begun research into the rating practices used for
audio-visual works in the European Union, which is likely to encompass computer games .
16.12 Addressing the policy implications of the proposed Resolution, the Minister
We would not want to see a common rating system imposed on the computer games industry, and it is important that a political statement such as this does not
suggest that it would be desirable. Such a step would be incompatible with the need to recognise the cultural/national differences that exist in what constitutes appropriate material for different age-groups. The best way forward is to allow the industry
to pursue its current discussions which are much more likely to lead to a practicable voluntary pan-European system. There may also be potential in initiatives to develop common assessment techniques, so long as Member States remained free to award
different ratings based on their judgements of the common assessment. Our objective is to secure wording which respects these principles .
16.13 The Minister adds that the Department of Culture,
Media and Sport has coordinated consultation within Government, and has liaised extensively with the VSC and the industry, with ELSPA in particular.
16.14 The Minister says
that this issue must be seen in perspective by the Presidency, commenting that since 1994, under the UK system, 90% of games have been rated as suitable for children under 15. Whilst UK consumers may be content with the ratings applied, we appreciate
that cultural expectations vary widely and it is not difficult to imagine that the standards set in some Member States may be regarded as unacceptable in others. We are glad, therefore, to learn from the Minister that steady progress has been made in
finding common ground by the industry in discussions on a practicable pan-European voluntary system.
16.15 We note that the Minister says that it is possible that proposals for common rating systems may emerge in
the longer term. Given the diversity of views in the Community and the questions of subsidiarity that such proposals would raise, we regard such a prospect as an even more pressing reason to work for a successful outcome to the search for a voluntary
16.16 We now clear this document but ask the Minister to report back to us on the wording agreed for this Resolution and to inform us in due course of the results of the Commission's research into rating
practices in the EU.