HC Deb 04 April 1955 vol 539 cc906-9

7.15 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 21, at the end to insert: Provided that, in any proceedings taken under this subsection against a person in respect of selling or letting on hire a work or of having it in his possession for the purpose of selling it or letting it on hire, it shall be a defence for him to prove that he had not examined the contents of the work and had no reasonable cause to suspect that it was one to which this Act applies. The Amendment seeks to meet some of the points which were raised in the discussion of this Clause during the Committee stage. It does not go so far as some hon. Members wished, but the Government feel that it represents the most that can be done without endangering the effective enforcement of the Bill.

My right hon. and gallant Friend has given very careful consideration to the argument put forward on the Committee stage urging that the prosecution should be required to show, as the right hon. and learned Member for Neepsend (Sir F. Soskice) said, some conscious purpose to deprave. I think those were his words. My right hon. and gallant Friend still feels that it would impose an impossible burden on the prosecution to require it to do more than establish that the work was one to which the Act applies, and that the person charged had published or printed or sold it, and so on.

My right hon. and gallant Friend's view is that anyone who is aware of the contents of such a work, which is found by the court to come within the definition of Clause 1, must be presumed to foresee the natural and probable consequences of his action. The Government were, however, impressed by the argument that a retailer, in some circumstances, might be genuinely unaware of what he was selling, and this is the point which the Amendment seeks to meet. I think it was the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) who emphasised that point.

The Amendment does not apply to the printer or publisher, who must know what he is doing, but it does enable a retailer to put forward a defence that he had not examined the contents of the work and had no reasonable cause to suspect that it was one to which the Measure applies. It will be for the retailer to explain to the court how it was that he came to have the work in his possession or to sell it without having any suspicion as to its nature.

The sort of circumstances in which he might be able to establish the defence provided here would be those in which he had received a large consignment of magazines, which included some horror comics, which he had not had time to examine, or those in which he had sold a work whose nature was not apparent from the cover. It is possible that the cover could be deceptive. He would have some difficulty in convincing the court that he had no reasonable cause to be suspicious of horror comics of the sort with the titles and the pictures on the cover which we have all seen.

The retailer would not, of course, be able to argue, on the basis of this Amendment, that he had examined the contents of the work and did not think the Act applied to it. If such a defence were to be made available to him, it would make enforcement of the Bill very difficult indeed, if not impossible. The Amendment meets the view, which was strongly pressed during the Committee stage, and with which the Government certainly sympathise, that a man should not be convicted if he can satisfy the court that he did not know, and could not reasonably have known, that he was dealing with harmful publications to which the Bill applies.

Mr. Michael Foot (Plymouth, Devonport)

I should like to thank the Government for moving the Amendment along lines on which I and other hon. Members expressed some views. It goes.a considerable way to meet the case which I presented, and it shows that in introducing the Bill the Government do not desire to harass the retailer, nor do they wish the retailer to impose his own censorship over a much wider field than they intend to be dealt with by the Bill. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the Amendment. It is not quite in the words which I should have chosen, but no doubt it will work out all right, because I believe that it meets the situation in general.

I hope that it will be well understood by retailers that the Government and the House have recognised and tried to meet their difficulties, and that no retailer should use as an excuse for censoring publications the idea that he might be prosecuted under the Bill. The retailer has a protection under the Clause, and no retailer should go out of his way to extend censorship beyond that which the House is intending to impose.

In my view it is almost always wrong for a newsagent, bookseller, or retailer. to impose a censorship on the products which he purveys. That is not his business. He has to take some account of the law of libel and of obscenity, which we hope will soon be reformed, and he will have to take this new law into account, for he has his responsibilities under it. But it is wrong for any newsagent or bookseller to go beyond that, and if he thinks that he can solve the problem easily by saying, "I will not examine the product because it may contain dangers: I will not sell it," then he is not doing his duty as a retailer.

His duty is not to impose a censorship but to enable the public to buy anything which the laws of England say can be sold. His duty is not to intervene between the right of the public to buy and the right of someone to publish. I hope it will be understood by newsagents and retailers that the House of Commons has attempted to meet the legitimate difficulties in which they might be involved, and that it would be wrong of them to attempt to impose any kind of censorship of their own.

Sir Frank Soskice (Sheffield, Neepsend)

As one who took part in the controversy on this Clause, I, too, should like to add my word of thanks to the hon. Gentleman. I should have liked the Government to go a little further, but as I intimated in Committee, I recognise that there was a danger of unduly depriving the Bill of its efficacy. The Government seem to have reached a sensible compromise between the views expressed from both sides of the House and on both sides of the controversy, and I think that the Clause should now work.

Mr. William Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

I am not in agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Neepsend (Sir F. Soskice). I have been concerned about efforts made to reduce the efficacy of the Bill, and I am sorry that the Government have provided this loophole of escape for those who are responsible for offering these publications to the public.

Had this been an earlier stage of the Bill, I should have suggested that the Government should have second thoughts, but that is not now possible. I am sure that several hon. Members will not be too happy that this loophole has been provided, and I wish the Bill had gone through without it.

Amendment agreed to.