HC Deb 03 December 1963 vol 685 cc1105-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

10.0 p.m.

Mrs. Patricia McLaughlin (Belfast, West)

It may seem rather strange to say that I am grateful for the opportunity of raising tonight this urgent, important, serious, and to me entirely unpleasant subject—that is the question of obscene publications and where we have failed to carry out the tasks laid upon us to see that this type of publication is not available, particularly to our young people.

In the short space of time of an Adjournment debate, it would not be suitable to go into detail on the various types of arrangements that we have made to try to protect the public. I want to draw attention to the fact that the public is still apparently not sufficiently protected, particularly against the type of obscene publications which have no literary merit whatever. These are the ones with which I am particularly concerned.

I have sent to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary a large number of these publications, and I have an equally large number here. I do not intend to mention any of them by name and give them undue publicity. I can only say that they are the type of publication which glorifies brutality and bestiality of every kind.

There are, I understand, between 150 and 200 of these different types of publication which are, in the main, imported from other countries and are not published here. This is the first and very important point. They are not in the main published in our own country, although some are. They come in despite all the protections that we have to prevent them coming in and being on sale. They manage to slip through every net that we have laid out to catch them. These are the type of publications in which no decent artist, decent author or respectable photographer would have his work displayed. In many cases they are not even grammatically sound, and the crudity of expressions in them is something to which we have to pay attention as they are now on sale in such large numbers.

They are typical of the general slipping of our feelings in allowing things to be a little more relaxed. Somehow, we have relaxed too much and allowed this type of publication in vast numbers to flood the areas where people live, particularly the closely crowded urban areas, where the young, perhaps in coffee bars, are shown these publications and told the type of store where they can buy them. No reputable bookseller would touch them. They are on sale in places where one has to be in the know about them. The difficulty about this, as one young chap said to me, is that they are exciting, particularly if one is the type of young person who has left school at 15-plus and been thrown into the busy world and who has more chance of getting; this publication. They are exciting in a crude, demoralising and very degrading way. As the chap said, "They are inclined to pander to the beast in us, and we are bound to be excited and to a certain extent stimulated by them."

The difficulty is that despite what has been laid down in our latest Act it is not easy to define what is obscene. We have directions and definitions and powers of seizure, and so on, but despite that there is still a very large trade in this dirty, filthy muck which has no right to be on sale in this country.

We are disturbed about the increase in crime. Look through these books and see the way in which everybody who is a wrongdoer is portrayed as a great hero, who gets away with it. We are disturbed about crimes of violence. If hon. Members look at these books they will see crime of every type being glorified and made wonderful. They will see peculiarities of every sort, and all the peculiarities of sex, glorified in all ways. There are some horrifying and disgusting things in these books—the whole range of everything that is dirty and horrible is to be found. Then we wonder why our young people should perform the sort of actions that they so often do.

In many respects our young people are wonderful. Many of them, throughout the country, have asked specifically that this type of publication should be banned, and have asked for help in preventing these books being sold and peddled. This is one of the points upon which we must concentrate. We must realise that we have failed so far to close the gap.

There is another aspect of the question which I am not certain is within the authority of the Under-Secretary to answer. If he says that he cannot do so, I shall understand. I refer to the horror publications which are sold in bubble-gum packets. We do not expect to get anything very ghastly in them, but I have here a very rare first set of 55 horror cards, each of which contains some ghastly information. They show 55 different acts of horror and violence—and we do not expect old people to buy bubble-gum. The first card is headed "Panic in Parliament". Its information is entirely erroneous and misleading. A description of the horrifying scene is retailed on the back of the card, but it has nothing to do with anything that has happened or could happen in this House. The second card is called "Death in the Cockpit" and the third card is called "The Human Torch". They glory in brutality of one form or another.

The Watch and Social Problems Committee of the Mothers' Union brought this fact to my notice. Over 70 committees of young people have brought these and other publications to the attention of many hon. Members. They are not all that easy to get hold of. When the people who sell them and make a profit out of them think that the heat is on they move their headquarters and start up somewhere else. It is all very well to say that the older ones who buy them should not fall for this temptation, but all of us have weaknesses and we all know that once we have taken a magazine like this, or have been put in the position of having one, we are much likely to be blackmailed into taking another, and after a while we are liable to become regular customers.

We must somehow clear this matter up. It is our responsibility. We cannot expect our young people to believe us when we tell them that we believe in honesty and decency, and in helping people to lead a good life, and encouraging them in all the things that are worth while, when, at the same time, we allow so many obviously rotten things to be literally flung at their heads. I hope that we can find ways to alter the present situation, which is daily becoming more serious.

Only today I was told by an air hostess that the number of these revolting magazines that are picked up from the seats of aircraft is quite incredible. I presume this is because the people who come to this country realise that they are forbidden here. In that case, how do they get past the watchful eyes of our Customs officials? I should also like to know if there is any come-back on people who print and publish these things in our own country.

We seem only too seldom to be able to put our laws into action. We must somehow find ways of making them work more satisfactorily. I have been surprised at the amount of interest that this subject has caused among people who are concerned with the welfare of the young—people who are actively concerned in helping them to meet the challenge of this very troubled world, and who know that everything they can do to help them will make them stronger and more able and fit for this world. The things they find most difficult to counteract are the really depraved things that appear in our publications today.

I have no intention of becoming involved in the question whether something has literary merit. According to the 1959 Act it seems to me that these publications will come under Section 4(2) which says that the opinion of experts as to the literary, artistic, scientific or other merits of an article may be admitted in any proceedings under this Act either to establish or to negative the said ground. There is no artistic or other merit in any of these magazines and there could be no argument to suggest that they have any good in them.

A very wide issue is raised here. How far can we interfere in a decent trade without hurting it in order to prevent an indecent trade? I am not clear what is the procedure. If these magazines are deliberately mixed with magazines which are not obscene—and this is often the case—it is hard to trace exactly which is which without countless more inspectors entering premises than we could hope to have. I hope that the Under-Secretary will give me further information about how much has been done to keep down this type of literature and how much further we can hope to go to solve the problem.

If we are to solve it completely we must ensure that the books do not go underground or appear somewhere else under another title. There are almost 200 names of the same type of magazine. I could take the cover from one and put it on another, and it would make no difference. The people who make a livelihood out of these magazines are up to all the tricks of the trade. Can we get ahead of them and prevent them from moving from one place to another or from changing the titles of these magazines? Are we satisfied that we have done all that we could do?

This question have been raised time and again in the Midlands, in the North-East and around London by those who are anxious to see that publications of no literary merit, which are merely disgusting, pornographic and entirely obscene are wiped from our land, but we do not seem to have found ways of doing this.

It would be out of order for me to discuss possible legislation or to suggest that we have not sufficient legislation. I must confine myself to saying that I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will give me some assurance that strong action is taken. We hear of isolated cases, but all too often we hear of numbers of these books being sold regularly without the seller being caught. I have seen these publications myself, and they are easily available all over the country. I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us that it is the Government's firm intention to ensure that these publications do not flourish in this country and that there is no place for them on any bookstall or in the hands of any person in this country.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I do not want to take any of the time in which the Minister will reply to the debate, but I should like to congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) on taking the opportunity to raise a matter which is prominent in the minds of many Members on both sides of the House.

Like other hon. Members, I have had correspondence from an organisation calling itself "Youth for Decency", with headquarters in Bolton. I do not know how important or how widespread is the organisation, but I am glad to see that some young people are taking steps in this matter.

I hope that the Minister will not ride away on the argument that although we understand the problem, and although the law exists, it is a very difficult question of definition. That will not do. We have read some unpleasant stories in the Press lately about the goings on at certain junior schools. There was a report in the newspapers only this week about a number of girls under the age of 15 or 16 at a junior school who were pregnant, and about boys of 14 and 15 who had been convicted of indecent offences. It is not surprising, in view of this kind of thing going on.

I therefore hope that the Minister will not ride away on such an answer, but will give a positive answer. If his argument is that this is a difficult problem to define, let him at least consider setting up an inquiry within his Department or through some other channels to see what can be done about it and how control can be applied. I do not imagine that these; magazines come into the country in hundreds of thousands through a smuggling operation. They must come in quite openly. We can control this kind of thing in films and in the theatre, and I do not see why we cannot control it in magazines if the Government intend to do something about it. I hope that the Minister will give us some positive information when he replies.

10.15 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. C. M. Wood-house)

I, too, should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) on her initiative in raising this question. She has done a service to the House in bringing it before us this evening. It concerns the sale all over the country today of obscene books and magazines, very largely, as she said, imported. The scale on which it is happening is already a considerable moral and social problem, to some important aspects of which the hon. Member for Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) has drawn attention.

I want to answer my hon. Friend—and I hope that this will satisfy the hon. Member for Attercliffe—by telling the House something of the defences which exist under the law against such material and of the action which the enforcement authorities are taking under the powers available to them.

First, I want to say a word to clarify the role of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in relation to the enforcement of the law. It should not be thought, from the fact that I am the Minister replying to the debate, that my right hon. Friend is responsible for enforcement. That is a common misconception, and I am glad to take the opportunity to correct it.

As I shall show in a moment, enforcement of the law relating to obscenity is in the hands of the Customs authorities in relation to imported material and of the police in relation to both imported and native material, guided in both cases by the Director of Public Prosecutions but not by the Home Secretary. My right hon. Friend has no ministerial responsibility for the Customs authorities, but my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury is here to represent them.

The Home Secretary has general responsibility for the administration of the local police forces and he is, of course, the police authority for the Metropolitan Police. But he has no ministerial responsibility for police action in instituting proceedings in the courts, nor powers to give the police instructions as to the way they enforce the law or as to the proceedings they should bring. So I am replying partly in a vicarious capacity because this affects the actions of a number of separate authorities.

My right hon. Friend is concerned to watch the progress in the battle against the flood of pornography, because if the law is not working properly, and amending legislation is required, he would be responsible for sponsoring it. As it happens there have been some decisions in the courts which have revealed defects in the Obscene Publications Act, 1959. I am sure that the House will excuse me from going into detail about those defects, partly because I do not want to draw the attention of would-be traffickers in obscenity to possible loopholes in the law and partly because, if we were to get into a discussion of fresh legislation, we should be out of order.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the fact that pornographic magazines and paper-backed books are widely on sale in retail shops although they are not, in the main, published here. This flow, which has grown recently into a flood of cheap and, generally speaking, foully written pornographic books, comes in the main from the United States. It began at the end of 1960, partly because the relaxation of the policy of price restriction on the importation of printed matter made it possible for it to be sent here very cheaply.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

Can my hon. Friend say how long the Home Secretary would consider that he has to wait before amending the law in order to strengthen it?

Mr. Woodhouse

If my hon. Friend will wait, she will get her answer a little later.

The price restriction I was referring to was a wartime measure for economic reasons which could no longer be sustained. It appears that there is a surplus of these books in the United States because in some States obscene literature of this kind is freely printed, published and sold—not, of course, lawfully, but apparently to some extent with impunity.

This surplus, which is valueless on the American market, is worthwhile for British importers to bring at very low cost into this country. It is a profitable traffic in spite of the fact that very large quantities, as I shall show, never get through to the point of sale.

There are two lines of defence against this traffic. The first line is in the powers available to the Customs authorities at the ports under Section 42 of the Customs Consolidation Act, 1876. This Act prohibits the importation of a long list of articles, including obscene articles which are defined in some detail in that Section. There is also the procedure laid down in the Customs and Excise Act, 1952, which provides for the seizure and condemnation of prohibited articles of all kinds.

This work of intercepting imported pornography is carried out, for convenience and economy, by the Customs officers although their primary task is concerned with the assessment and protection of the revenue. The officers cannot and do not devote themselves specially and exclusively to the watch for obscene matter. They rely on intercepting it if it comes to their notice in the course of their general examination of incoming material. As the House will see from figures, they have done pretty well.

Since the beginning of 1961 they have seized and condemned over 1 million copies of repulsive novels and magazines appearing under 1,000 different titles. But the fact that my hon. Friend has managed to purchase some copies shows that a certain proportion of the flood is not dammed at the ports of entry. We therefore come to the second line of defence, which is an attempt to dam it—in both senses of the word—after it comes into the country.

This second line lies in the Obscene Publications Act, 1959, which operates against both imported and native pornography. Section 2 makes it an offence for a person, … whether for gain or not, to publish an obscene article, and there is the provision in Section 1, defining the test of obscenity to which my hon. Friend referred. There is also the definition in Section 4 as to justification for publication on grounds of its being in the interest of science, literature or learning or other merits. But I mention that only to confirm her judgment that this has no conceivable application to the mass of material with which we are concerned tonight.

Section 3 provides a power for the granting by a justice of the peace of a warrant for the police to search premises where there is reasonable ground for suspecting that obscene articles are kept for publication or gain and to seize any such articles. They are then brought before the magistrates' court, which has power to order them to be forfeited if it judges them to be obscene by the test in Section 1. Under this forfeiture power, over 360,000 imported novels and magazines have been destroyed in 1961 and 1962.

There are also a number of cases which are sub judice before the courts now. The number of books covered by these cases amount in the aggregate to over a quarter of a million. I hope that the House will agree that these results show evidence of vigorous action on the part of the enforcement authorities, taken in face of the considerable difficulties to which my hon. Friend referred, and the scale of which will be obvious from the fact that an article cannot be forfeited merely on suspicion. It has to be read by somebody. This is an enormous task, bearing in mind that over 1,000 titles have been involved.

Sir James Pitman (Bath)

May I ask whether the British Museum does not have some opportunity to check up on this by an examination of the copies? Every book published in this country has to be deposited with the British Museum, and I should have thought that the Museum might very easily have tipped the wink.

Mr. Woodhouse

As far as I am aware, my hon. Friend is right about books published in this country, but the vast majority of the books with which we are concerned are not published here. Although the British Museum's obligation is to receive such books, I do not think that it extends to reading them. This is the task that makes it so difficult for the operation of the law to be fully effective.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West has drawn attention to the fact that despite these safeguards she is still able to acquire such publications in the shops. This certainly does not mean, as I hope I have sufficiently shown, that there is any question of indifference on the part of the authorities to this filthy traffic. I should like to assure my hon. Friend that the Home Secretary deeply shares the concern that she has expressed and is by no means inactive in face of the problem for the future. I should like to tell the House, without, I hope, needing to go into further details, for a reason which I will explain in a moment, that the resources of the law have not yet been exhausted.

Mr. R. H. S. Crossman (Coventry, East)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of copies stopped at the Customs. Has he any form of collaboration with the American authorities in trying to stop more than that number? Has he any calculation of the number which got through despite his observations?

Mr. Woodhouse

The answer to the first part of the question is "Yes". This is a matter on which we are in touch with the Americans. The answer to the second part is impossible to give, because one can give it only by catching them all once they are inside the country. The fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West has bought a number, and other hon. Members have mentioned them, show that they get through on a not inconsiderable and a regrettable scale.

Hon. Members will not expect me to reveal this evening the proceedings which the police have in train. As I have said, a number of cases are pending and there will probably be more. I have described some of the proceedings which have already been taken. The figures I have given refer to successful actions on the ground of obscenity. There is also the problem of violence and brutality to which my hon. Friend referred, and the bubble gum cards. I am told that the police have been in touch with the original issuers of bubble gum cards, who have agreed to withdraw them.

I do not know whether the collection of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West is the same as that which the police have already investigated. Perhaps she will be good enough to pass them on to me. If they have not been investigated I am sure that the police will be glad to look at them.

As for brutality in general, there is nothing in the present law which condemns it, apart from the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act which deals with a limited class of works, and not all the works which some people regard as undesirable would be caught under the existing law. I am certain that we have not yet reached the point where any extension of the law needs to be considered, for the reason that if the law can be adequately enforced in the cases which we now have in mind there is a good chance that the supply from abroad may dry up altogether. I would, therefore, prefer to reserve judgment and not commit either my right hon. Friend or the police tonight to further action until we see how current cases develop.

I believe that the House will be willing to accept the assurance of my right hon. Friend that he is watching and will watch with the closest attention and concern the results of the current activities of the enforcement authorities in the next few months, which I hope will be completely successful.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.