HC Deb 28 June 1966 vol 730 cc1751-60

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

10.47 p.m.

Sir Charles Taylor (Eastbourne)

I very much regret that, though I moved that strangers should withdraw, I have not got an opportunity, in private session, of telling the House about this filthy and disgusting book. It is too frightful for words and, for that reason, I will not quote from it tonight, for I would not wish to embarrass the people in the galleries or anyone else. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Certainly that is so. And, speaking frankly, if hon. Members had read this book they would realise what I mean when I say that.

Had the House given me the opportunity, I would, in secret session, have quoted parts of the book, still with embarrassment, so that the House could make up its mind about the contents of it. I will not mention the title of the book, because I do not want to give it any publicity. I had intended to quote some of the vicious and beastly paragraphs from it, but I will not do so. I understand from the Attorney-General that the Director of Public Prosecutions does not think that this book will deprave or corrupt. I wish that I had the opportunity to quote some of the passages to see if hon. Members in this Chamber would think that it would deprave and corrupt.

I must make my speech very short this evening because I cannot make my case without quoting passages from the book. Therefore, I hope with the approval of the House, I shall arrange for a copy of the book to be placed in the Library so that any hon. Member who wants to satisfy himself about my good intentions in this matter will have an opportunity of satisfying himself that what I believe is right and that the book is wrong and has a wrong influence on society and a wrong influence on young people. I hope that every hon. Member when he has looked at the book will realise if he is a father or a grandfather that he would not like his children to read this book which is readily on sale at a great number of bookshops throughout the country.

It was sent to me out of the blue by a most reputable bookseller in Oxford called Blackwells, who refused to stock it—God bless the firm for that. I will place a copy in the Library so that it is available for any hon. Member to read. I hope that any hon. Member who agrees with me will subsequently sign a Motion condemning the Attorney-General for not urging the Director of Public Prosecutions to take action in this beastly case.

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

I have read only a few passages of this book. I confirm what the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) has said about it. The passages which I have read could in my view be of no interest to anyone who was not a sadistic sexual maniac. It is the kind of reading matter of the murderers of the children on the moors.

I hope that I am in order. I greatly regret the vote which has just been taken when the hon. Member spied strangers.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot discuss that now. The House has made a decision.

Mr. Noel-Baker

I only add that I hope the hon. Member may have your permission, Mr. Speaker, on another occasion to bring this matter before the House again when we can decide whether or not the galleries should be cleared on that occasion and that a difficult decision will be made.

Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

As the Chairman of the Select Committee on Obscene Publications, this book has been shown to me. I have been shocked that the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions have not prosecuted in this case. All the evidence by the late Director to the Committee was to the effect that the law was altered to provide that books of no literary merit but which dealt only with pornography and filth would be banned in this country.

10.54 p.m.

Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)

I have had the misfortune to read various passages of the book and I agree with everything which has been said about it. It is really quite appalling. I believe that the whole House and the country owe a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) for raising this matter. Many of us feel that there is an appalling lowering of standards at present on television and certainly in publications of this kind. Therefore, I sincerely hope that the wise words of my hon. Friend will be listened to intently by the Attorney-General and that he will take some positive action to see that this filth is not perpetrated on the nation in future.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

I do not propose to keep the House for long. I object to the tone of this debate so far and the implication that we should attempt to impose a censorship on the basis of this sort of debate. We have a good law on obscene publications. For my part, I have complete confidence in my right hon. and learned Friend and the advice he may offer to the Director of Public Prosecutions. This country has too much censorship already. There are too many people trying to tell other people what they should or should not read or what they should or should not view. There are too many nosy parkers.

10.56 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Rhodes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)

I remind the House that it was not very long ago that I had an Adjournment debate on this very same subject. On that occasion the Attorney-General told the House of the tremendous quantity of filthy literature which is flooding the country, mainly coming in from outside. On that occasion I gave evidence to the House of how this literature was falling into the hands of young people and, in my view, damaging their minds.

I have not had the opportunity of reading this book, but I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) on raising this subject again, because on that occasion the Attorney-General said that he was considering taking stricter measures to check the flood of this filthy literature coming into the country. From my information, this action has not been taken in the last 12 months.

Sir C. Taylor

This book is printed and published in England.

Mr. Rhodes

That is fair enough. I would accept that the festering sore which has been brought in from outside is now finding a market in this country. If it were not out of order, I would refer to the fact that this kind of publication may be subject to benefits under the Selective Employment Tax; but that is another story.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) on the subject of censorship. We have to protect young people from this kind of literature which is flooding the country. If the Government were to take strong action on this matter I am sure that they would have the support of every mother and father in the nation.

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I rise only to say how much I agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes) and to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) whether he would say where the book was published and name the publishers. I myself have not heard of the book. I do not even now know its name, nor the name of its author. I think that we might be told the name of its publisher.

I have been in communication with the Attorney-General about this sort of literature which has been posted to schoolboys in my constituency. They have sent it through their masters to me. I am told by the Attorney-General that he greatly deplores this sort of thing but that the maximum penalty is £10. I therefore would like my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne to say who the publishers are at least, and I express my amazement that the Attorney-General refuses to send this to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

10.59 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)

May I say immediately that strong steps are taken to deal with the flood of pornography that the country has been facing for many years. Perhaps if I may give shortly one or two of the relevant statistics the House will see, first, the extent of the challenge of this business of pornography and the extent of successful action by the authorities.

Between 1961 and 1963 the Customs authorities and the police between them seized 1,863,000 obscene novels which had been imported. Hundreds of thousands of obscene magazines were seized during that period. In 1964, no fewer than 401,000 obscene paperback novels were seized, together with 579,000 magazines of a similar character. There were 35 prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act in 1963, 50 in 1964 and 49 in 1965.

I will deal immediately with some of the problems which arise when the Director of Public Prosecutions has to make these difficult decisions. One thing is clear. The most deplorable thing would be to have an unsuccessful prosecution in respect of mis odious book. It would overnight become a best-seller. It has now almost ceased to be sold; most booksellers have not touched it. The gravest harm that could be caused now would be to have an unsuccessful prosecution of this book.

Let the House consider calmly the legal problems that face those who have to decide whether to take that grave risk. The law relating to the matter is governed by the Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964. Section 1(1) of the 1959 Act provides that an article, including a book, shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect … is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it. It is a defence under Section 4(1) of the same Act to prove that publication of the article in question is justified as being for the public good on the ground that it is in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern. The effect of these sections is, as the learned judge explained to the jury in the Lady Chatterley case, that the book must be read as a whole, and not selected extracts. He explained to the jury that it was not deciding questions of taste or exercising the functions of a censor, and the mere fact that it was shocked or disgusted by the book did not answer the critical question which had to be decided, namely, did the book tend to deprave and corrupt those likely to read it.

He explained that, even if the book taken as a whole was proved by the prosecution to be obscene, if the defendant could establish the probability that its merits as a novel were so high that they outbalanced the obscenity, so that publication was for the public good, the jury must acquit. As we all know, the jury did acquit, and "Lady Chatterley's Lover ", instead of selling a few thousand copies, sold by the million. That was the consequence of the unsuccessful prosecution in that case.

When deciding whether or not to prosecute, the Director of Public Prosecutions must consider, first, whether the book is obscene within the meaning of the Act, not merely that certain passages are shocking and disgusting; secondly, whether the defence of justification will succeed; and thirdly, whether the risk of incurring widespread and effective publicity for the book is out of all proportion to the chances of success in prosecuting it

In this case, the first difficulty was that, whatever one's own opinion of the merits of the book, the literary critics were almost unanimously agreed that it is a book of literary merit. I must be careful in quoting what the nature of the criticisms was, but the literary critic of the Listener —[Interruption.]—I do not know whether the Spectator is more attractive to hon. Members opposite, but I should have thought that the Listener is a publication of high quality—said: No book could well be less obscene … We are spared nothing of the snarls and tribulations of pimps, queens, and ' hip queers ', but the tone is wholly compassionate although sometimes whipped by the kinesis of anger. The Scotsman described the book as: One of the most meaningful landmarks in the literature of this generation. It is a young man's nightmare of urban misery and squalor most minutely reprieved and quite unforgettably expressed … a personal statement worth a dozen self-immolations against a vicious, violent, mean, sex-obsessed, and almost mindless process, which is life in a small section of …"— and the name of the place which is described is mentioned.

Another critic describes it as …a beautiful book … very, very moral. Then the Irish Times said: …it is important to state that I believe the author to be writing out of the deepest of Swiftian motives. That was the nature of the literary criticism of the book. So it was not at any rate regarded in literary circles as yet another trashy paperback from America.

Mr. Turton rose

The Attorney-General

I am sorry. 1 cannot give way. [An HON. MEMBER: "Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman read it?"] Of course I have read the book. I am bound to say that I did not enjoy the exercise.

The Director of Public Prosecutions decided to have the question of the literary merit of this book investigated and the opinion of a leading authority on English literature at one of our universities was sought. This opinion was that the novel, while no masterpiece, had considerable literary merit. It would be very difficult, in the light of this experience, probably impossible, to find literary critics who would disagree. This authority said that there was … no question of self indulgence or of a cynically pornographic intention given a moral veneer … This is a shocking book, setting out to publicise squalor and to evoke pity, not to gratify its readers. It is also very different from Lady Chatterley … where sexual detail is part of an attempt to show feeling and beauty in actions and words that are often degraded or ashamed. The book … uses its shameful details and its crude language in order to show degradation. Its method of exposure is sensational, but seems to me to be sternly moral and honest. The language and structure and very compressed presentation makes it a book which is far from easy to read, though certainly accessible to the educated reader. Than was not the end of the matter. The Director investigated the question of obscenity and sought the opinion of one of the leading medical authorities as to the effect of this book on its readers. This was that only a small proportion of young people were likely to be depraved by reading it and they were the people who possessed … abnormal tendencies, latent or dormant, in their make-up perhaps sexually leading to undesirable behaviour. These were the circumstances which led the Director to the conclusion, in which he was supported by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and myself, that it was far from sure that a prosecution would succeed in respect of.this book and indeed that there was a very real danger of failure in the prosecution. We had to give the most anxious consideration to the consequences which might flow from the publicity given to an unsuccessful trial.

As I had said, the book is only known to a small number of people and indeed I do not think, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, that it has even been generally on sale. It has not received extensive publicity and the chances are that unless it is unsuccessfully prosecuted it is unlikely to circulate among any more than those who are determined to read this sort of literature.

As I have said, if it was prosecuted, if the prosecution failed—and there was a grave danger of this failure—the book would become a best seller overnight. I can only repeat that the Director, my hon. and learned Friend and I are determined to take a stand against this flood of pornography but we are not going to make the error of a mistaken judgment which can only add force to that flood. When the opportunity arises we shall press forward with this battle against commerce in this filth without any kind of hesitation.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Eleven o'clock.