HC Deb 18 July 1969 vol 787 cc1180-202

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

3.22 p.m.

Mr. E. S. Bishop (Newark)

I am pleased to have opportunity today to draw attention to the operation of the Obscene Publications Acts. I should refer at the outset to the circumstances of an Adjournment debate on a Friday, when numbers in the Chamber are inevitably limited, and the consideration that if one is to exercise freedom the House might possibly have to consider the matters raised without the public being present, with the consequence, I understand, that nothing of what I have to say would appear in HANSARD. These considerations make me very sensitive to the situation and force me to accept the presence of the public, with the restrictions which that may place on hon. Members. None the less, I shall have regard to the people who are present today, and I hope that those who are not here but who read our proceedings will bear in mind that there have been some understandable inhibitions in the presentation of the case.

The matter which I am raising follows upon correspondence which I have had for some time with the Solicitor-General and the Home Office, to whom I have made representations concerning two magazines. Lest some may wonder whether I am rather sensitive, I say now that my wife and I have been magistrates for many years and we have a family of teenage and 20-year-old daughters. I can fairly say, therefore, that we are not unduly shocked by what we hear or see, and I think that I am sufficiently "with-it" to know that a rolling stone is not just a loose cobble in the ancient market place of Newark.

I have sent copies of publications to the Ministers to whom I have referred. I regard these publications as not only shocking and disgusting but liable to corrupt and deprave, as specified in the Acts. The Ministers have accepted that, although they may shock and disgust, they cannot be regarded as tending to corrupt or deprave. I understand that this advice has been taken with the guidance of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

I can well imagine the reluctance which there is to take action in the courts in case the action fails and the publishers of such literature can then feel much safer and freer in their publication. If legislation is such that it is not operated, then the purpose of the Act fails. There is another aspect. If there is legislation and no action is taken, the public, including young people in particular, will feel that there is an unofficial stamp of approval and many will say, "It must be all right to buy such stuff, because otherwise the authorities would stop it being sold." This is a very important point. There is the implied approval to stuff which is continuing to be sold.

I shall refer in this brief debate only to magazines and not to a wider range of publications, as one could easily do, where there may be some literary merit of sex and its associations being an aspect of a continuing story, although I suspect that the spicy parts of some of our books are concocted first and the whole thing is then wrapped up into a story to ensure good financial returns. The publications to which I refer were not bought at seedy Soho bookshops, where some customers may already be depraved, but from the ordinary kind of High Street shop of good repute, where smokers buy their tobacco, children may buy sweets and workers buy their newspapers. There one can see these magazines which, for obvious reasons, I shall not name. They are piled up next to copies of reputable local and national newspapers.

Of course, it is important to say this because, in dealing with the Obscene Publications Acts, it is essential to have regard to the people buying them, the circumstances in which they were bought, the reasons for which they were bought and so on, so as to ensure that there is a right definition of the need to recognise the tendency to deprave and corrupt.

In the particular publications which I have sent to the Minister, there is on one page a series of drawings featuring a man, a rather slobbering, slithering, drooling-at-the-mouth creature, expressing signs of wanting sexual satisfaction as he sees a girl pass by. The series ends with him chasing her with obvious intentions into an alleyway, and he is shown brought abruptly to a halt as he sees her bending down, completely exposed at the back, and even he falls to the ground in shock. One can well imagine what the effect is on decent readers.

On another page in the magazine there is a fully erected black male sex organ, about nine inches in length, and along its length are four sketches of women in various states of undress. I should have thought that these two illustrations were such that action should have been taken. No one can say that these particular illustrations are in any way a part of any literary or artistic effort. They are, indeed, quite out of place. So far as one can see, their only intention is to sell the magazine in future.

The dilemma facing Parliament and, of course, the police, is the definition of obscenity and corruption as specified in the Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964, for on that rests not only the degree of control which may be exercised, but also other Acts which are supplementary to them.

The test of obscenity in the 1959 Act is given in Clause 1, which says that an article 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 the relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it. This matter has caused a great deal of concern, and the 1964 Act followed a Select Committee Report on the workings of the 1959 Act. The problem of definition was apparent then as it is today, for the Select Committee considered it carefully and its recommendations were embodied in the 1964 legislation.

Unless we can decide at what stage an article, not merely shocks or disgusts, but has a tendency to corrupt or deprave other measures dependent on definition become useless.

Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, 1955, says that the Act applies to any book, magazine, or other like work which is of a kind likely to fall into the hands of children or young persons and consists wholly or mainly of stories told in pictures (with or without the addition of written matter), being stories portraying—

  1. (a) the commission of crimes; or
  2. (b) acts of violence or cruelty; or
  3. (c) incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature;
in such a way that the work as a whole would tend to corrupt a child or young person into whose hands it might fall. In an answer to a Parliamentary Question a few days ago which I addressed to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, I was told that there had not been any cases brought under this Act for five years, which was the point of my Question, and I understand that it is also true that no prosecutions have been taken under this Act since its enactment in 1955.

I suppose that the House should be delighted that this Measure, introduced mainly, I understand, to deal with the flood of horror comics from abroad, has not been operated, because it is thought that no publications considered likely to corrupt children and young persons have fallen into their hands. I should like to think that; because this is the implication from the fact that no action has been taken since 1955.

Here I suggest that there may be problems of definition as to whether the material under consideration is liable to corrupt or deprave those who read it. This Act becomes rather pointless unless we are clear on that point. What a blissful situation suggesting that children read only of Mr. Plod the Policeman and that Enid Blyton is their patron saint. I fear that this is far from being true and that in fact if only some of the adult publications came within their range the Act would have been violated, in which case I wonder why proceedings were not brought. Is it not accepted that what may deprave adults may have an even greater tendency often to deprave young people?

I want now to refer briefly to some correspondence which the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) has kindly handed to me and which he has received from the Chief Education Officer of the County Council of the West Riding of Yorkshire. In the correspondence the Chief Education Officer expresses very grave concern about the problems which teachers have to face in schools nowadays. I understand that there has recently appeared in some of the sixth forms in schools in the area a publication whose name I will not give. It is obviously produced by young people and for young people, and it is concerned with protest, and so on. It also advertises a number of publications commercially produced but also aimed at young children. I shall be referring to the publications in a moment. They include the ones on which I have had correspondence with the Minister. Two of them are published in this country. I understand that the Education Officer obtained copies of these papers from a shop in Leeds named as selling them. He has taken extracts from them. If one looks at the extracts one is made aware of the grave problems that face parents and teachers.

A writer states: One must assume that the Director of Public Prosecutions decided that it was not appropriate to take action against these publications because, although they may shock and disgust, he might find it difficult to prove that they deprave or corrupt. Later the letter says: If this is so, there must be many education officers whose imagination would be stretched to the limit wondering what must be committed in order that something may be judged to have a tendency to deprave. The writer goes on to give a photostate copy of some of the advertisements in a publication, and they are identical to the ones with which Ministers and I have been concerned.

There are a number of these advertisements and it is difficult, in the circumstances in which I am placed this afternoon, not to spread the kind of gospel with which they are concerned. I will only say, summarising them, that they invite young men and women to partake in situations where homosexuality, lesbianism and even bestiality is involved. They even mention some of the paraphernalia with which sexual malpractices may be performed.

The whole phraseology of these advertisements is designed to arouse the interest of children in these practices. I suggest that the impression is given that these things should appeal to young people who, these days, are really "with it" and that they give the impression that anyone who does not conform to this standard of practice, outlook and activity is a prig, when the reverse is really the case.

There are a number of advertisements for young men to share flats, as long as they have a certain outlook, and the same for women—students and so on—for initiation into all sorts of sexual experiences, straightforward and otherwise. There are also photographs of women called "Pussycats", "Dandy Jims" and others. Hon. Members will be familiar with these names, and I need not give others.

There is an extract about the incidence of lesbianism among "Groupies", giving the impression that they think nothing of it and saying that they prefer homosexual and bisexual boys and emphasing that if one can be bisexual that is better still. There is reference to certain practices, including bestiality. The whole tone is disgusting, and I can imagine the problems that face teachers and others dealing with children who may be subject to the corrupting and evil influences to which the publication refers.

I urge the Minister to recognise that in these publications we are concerned not merely with four-letter words but with some of the advertisements urging people to partake in practices. Although I had every intention of speaking frankly today, I fear, since the Public Gallery is occupied, that my remarks must be very much at a Sunday school level compared with the correspondence that I have received, particularly correspondence received this morning. This causes me and many hon. Members who have seen it very grave concern. We fear that this advertising may encourage people to think that these are normal practices and that they should take part in them. Do these matters come within the confines of the Acts?

If I can pursue the logic of that, I am saying that if we cannot define clearly what is liable to corrupt and deprave, it brings other Acts into disuse, to some extent—or at least causes difficulties in operating it. I refer to the Post Office Act of 1953 which provides, in Section 11, that a person shall not enclose any indecent or obscene print, painting, photograph, lithograph…book, card or written communication in material to be sent by post. If there is no clear definition of obscenity little can be done by the Post Office to prevent our postal services being used to transmit indecent mail.

That may account for some of the mail-order literature of a doubtful character. Many hon. Members have recently received order forms sent out by the Julian Press, in which the recipient is offered a 60s. book called "Variations an a Sexual Theme" in which 40 posed photographs of unclothed human models illustrate variations of positions possible in sexual intercourse including basic coital positions …portrayed in intimate detail for full sexual ecstasy Even movements and caresses are included in the "bargain deal". I know that many hon. Members have received this literature which comes from the Julian Press, and I also know how widespread is the concern about this literature.

It is noted on page 1 that This is a book that dare not be published ten, five, or even one year ago. Hon. Members would not protest, possibly, if it were apparent that the book came from reputable medical publishers and was part of a wide range of medical books, but the suggestion is that this book is offered purely—if that is the word—as a commercial proposition. I know of the deep concern of many of my hon. Friends about this firm.

A constituent sent me a leaflet offering him 'unspoilt and uncensored art productions and films at prices ranging from 35s. to £13 for all-male photographs and films of "boy and girls". The letter was sent to a certain address, and the name on the envelope was rather different from that of the occupier. Clearly, this literature is sometimes sent out quite discriminately.

In a Parliamentary Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer this week, I asked if he would take steps to restrict further the amount of foreign currency spent abroad on the import of pornographic literature; and what action he is taking to prevent such spending, especially from Scandinavian countries". The reply was that The importation of obscene matter is prohibited, and the prohibition is enforced by H.M. Customs."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th July, 1969; Vol. 787, c. 48.] That reply gave me the impression that no obscene or pornographic literature comes into the country, and that all the stuff we see on bookstalls is produced here. I can hardly believe that that is true in regard to a situation which we all know exists at present and has done for some time. Here again, I would have thought that greater control could have been exercised about the flood of literature now coming into the country. It will be noted that most of the laws which are designed to protect men, women and children from depravity and corruption are fairly recent, and take into account changing trends. Some hon. Members who may have other ideas about the future of this kind of legislation should bear in mind that it has been brought up to date in fairly recent times.

Many hon. Members will recognise the problem as arising from, the on the one hand, desire to prevent the circulation of obscene material and, on the other, the need to reduce restraints on personal liberty. But these terms are relative, for excessive liberty can easily become licence. In a society where people have gradually thrown away traditional safeguards, where moral standards are less easily defined, and where basic principles are not held in such high regard, the community must look to Parliament for protection, and that means that at least we should enforce the legislation that we have and perhaps consider what changes should be made in legislation generally—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. With that remark, the hon. Member goes beyond the scope of the Adjournment debate.

Mr. Bishop

I appreciate your help, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am concerned today with the enforcement of the present legislation.

Those who talk glibly about the liberty of the subject must ask what liberty there is for our young people if society does not protect them from the grossly lowered standards and dangers which seem to be springing from our failure to enforce some of our present laws. What liberty is there for the young girl who, product of an over-permissive society, is bearing a child whose father she does not know and who will be restricted in normal girlhood by being an unmarried mother living on State benefit, or is struggling to maintain a child on the pittance of an affiliation order, or is desperately wanting an abortion she cannot have, or is afflicted with V.D.?

The figures in the last few years show clearly that the incidence of V.D. is rising, illegitimacy is increasing and the number of abortions which have taken place have certainly risen. This is the price society has to pay for not operating some of the legislation which is in existence as it could be operated. The situation makes a very great demand on the social services.

The phrase "Publish and be damned" may be a fine one, but it depends who is publishing and who is being damned. With depraving publications the reader may pay the price in the fullest sense of the word. We should be concerned not only with the terrible risks we are taking in the effects on children and young people, but on the chronic misuse of our resources. Although we are to some extent restricting increasing expenditure on education and on school books, we are at the same time spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on this disgusting trash. We are right to ask where the priorities lie.

Above all, this is a matter concerning people's dignity and anything that lowers and degrades human beings below the level of what their creator intended them to be is to be decisively rejected. I urge the Minister to use his influence to have the Act considered afresh.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot deal with that on this debate, which is an Adjournment debate. He cannot propose changes in legislation. He can only criticise the administration of the present legislation.

Mr. Bishop

Thank you, for your guidance, Mr. Speaker. I was making the point that we should have another look at the enforcement of the present legislation and was not suggesting that we should necessarily change the law.

Some will say that we need freedom for young people to make choices. These days the word "freedom" is bandied around a good deal. The morally weak and those without firm principles need our help when the choices have to be made. When they come to the crossroads of life, as they do every day, they are entitled to expect guidance and help from the legislation which is now on the Statute book. If we fail them today as they deal with these problems, then they will be right in the future to curse us for our failure to look after them.

Although we expend much energy on tackling grave economic and other industrial problems today, I feel that the biggest dilemma facing the country is a moral one. I hone that the Minister will be able to assure us that he will examine the legislation with a view to giving guidance to those who have to take decisions, to make sure the legislation is enforced, and that we have a clear definition of the meaning of the Act. I am sure the country will come to value the steps that we then take.

3.49 p.m.

Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

I shall not detain the House for many moments this afternoon. I rise prinicpally to congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) for raising this matter in a very responsible way. It is a matter which ought to cause great concern to all hon. Members of this House and we are indebted to the hon. Member. I am sorry that there were so few hon. Members in the House to listen to what he had to say. We have the Obscene Publications Acts on the Statute Book. There can be little doubt in the minds of hon. Members who heard the hon. Member for Newark that some of the publications to which he referred were designed with only one purpose—to corrupt and deprave. That is how they achieved their circulation. I think that in the courts there would have been little difficulty in bringing prosecutions under the Acts which would stand. I ask the Under-Secretary of State to give an indication of how many prosecutions under these Acts there have been in recent years. How are the Acts operated? What advice has been given on their operation?

The last Act brought about a great reduction in the flow into this country of literature from America for children. But it did not stop the flood of equally dangerous matter arriving in its place. If we were able to stop one type of literature it seems to me that we ought to be able to stop another type on similar grounds.

Many of us are disturbed by what we see in the bookshops and on periodicals stalls and at street corners, particularly in London. We are disturbed by the sort of publication which is being produced. But they appear to me to be almost ready for the Sunday school collection compared with some of those mentioned by the hon. Member for Newark, which shocked and appalled me, for they are way beyond anything which appears on the ordinary bookstalls. Apparently these publications can be advertised, and presumably sold, through the Press—a publication designed to advertise other publications which are produced purely to deprave and corrupt. That seems to me to offer a classic case in which the courts could have stepped in and taken some action. I ask the Under-Secretary of State whether action will be taken through the courts or whether advice will be given by the Home Office, because it seems to me that the hon. Member for Newark has painted a picture which needs action and not just words.

3.52 p.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

First, I apologise to the House and to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) for having been a few moments late for the start of the debate.

I was much impressed by what my hon. Friend said on a subject which is causing worry to many people, including teachers, parents, leaders of society and others who are concerned about the moral attitudes of the nation. My hon. Friend has not raised a question simply involving curtailing people's liberty or range of choice. Indeed, I am the first to agree that individual responsibility is what matters in these cases. But the individual responsibility of a parent or a teacher must at times be backed by legislation and by the enforcement of existing legislation. We must, therefore, be grateful to my hon. Friend for having raised this point and we look forward to seeing the legislation being more rigorously enforced, if that is possible.

At times it is very difficult for the police to enforce this type of legislation as so much depends upon legal decisions, on points of law. On occasions much criticism can be levelled against the police if, for example, in one area they seem to be enforcing the law while in another area offenders go scot free. There is bound to be criticism if a publication is banned in town A with the result that its sales rocket by 5,000 in town B. It is a most difficult situation for the police, and we are almost driven to the conclusion that if we are to have a law is should be enforced and that if we do not enforce a law, there is not much purpose in its being on the Statute Book.

May I turn from the immediate problem which my hon. Friend raised to a problem which is somewhat akin to it and which concerns not only young people but the whole range of our society at every age level. This is something to which he referred in mentioning the Julian Press. He went into detail, saying what the Julian Press stated that it was offering. The first criticism here must cause great difficulties in people in legitimate postal sales business. That is the way in which this organisation seems to have worked. It has engaged in indiscriminate postal advertising throughout the nation. So far as I can gather, it has been working either with telephone books or with electoral registers for the names and addresses of people to whom it sends this publication.

Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)

Would my hon. Friend repeat the name of that press, since we did not catch it?

Mr. McNamara

The Julian Press.

It is one thing to say that a person is entitled, if he wishes, to go into a book- shop and buy a particular volume. It is another thing if, as a result of this type of indiscriminate advertising there is an invasion of his privacy and something which can cause great distress to people in his home if they receive an envelope containing an advertisement.

These can go to all sorts of people. My wife received a telephone call yesterday from a woman who had been widowed for 23 months who had received an advertisement advising her on how to get a book on sexual techniques. It has come addressed to young people as well, some of whom had just reached adolescence, and who had the same initials as their parents. It came addressed to me, yesterday morning, which shows a certain lack of discrimination by the organisation; after all, I had put down Questions earlier this week on the subject. It went to registered celibates, to ministers of religion and even to the chief detective superintendent of my local police force—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must tell us what the Minister can do about indiscriminate posting.

Mr. McNamara

Yes, Mr. Speaker, I was coming on to that.

Because of this, the Minister should consider this situation very carefully. The objection here is not only to the intrusion of privacy but also on the grounds which my hon. Friend mentioned when he was talking about the standards which we expect in our society, and the lead which we should be giving to people.

The thing which I find most objectionable about this type of literature and advertising is this, printed in red in one of their publications: For only with the universal acceptance that the path to a complete and enduring human relationship lies through the fullest sexual ecstasy between a couple in love does this book have such immediate relevance. I find this particularly appalling. Obviously, sexual relationships have a most important part to play in the relationship between married people, but it is not the only part. It is, perhaps, of major importance in some relationships, but it is not in others.

But the whole feeling behind this type of advertising is that only if a person reaches a degree of sexual perfection in what are commonly termed "techniques" will there be a lasting or a happy marriage. This is not what marriage is completely about. It is also about raising children, about tolerance and respect for individuals and about understanding of their dignity and their nature. The attitude of these books is the sort of atmosphere which says that sex, and sex alone, is the key. It is this literature that I find most objectionable —

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not questioning anything which the hon. Gentleman has said, but he must come to what the Minister can do about it without changing the law.

Mr. McNamara

Yes, Sir. This is where I can see that the police may have a difficulty. If one enforces the Post Office laws, as my hon. Friend said, it is an offence only if the material is sent through the post. It is doubtful whether an invitation sent through the post to treat for these articles creates an offence. The police are therefore in a very difficult position—

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. McNamara

If the police were to send £3, and received this publication through the post, would they, while trying to protect society, be inciting other people to commit a crime or procure the committal of a crime? I wonder what sort of advice the Home Office will give to chief constables about advertisements of this nature which tread the tightrope between legality and illegality with such delicacy.

This whole matter has caused tremendous concern throughout the country. It was raised at a public meeting on a local housing estate in my constituency last Friday evening. A great number of hon. Members have had correspondence on the subject. People are at a loss to know what they can do to protect themselves, their homes and their families against this invasion of privacy. My advice to them is to tear up the advertisement and post it back in the prepaid business reply envelope they receive from the firm, so showing their contempt and putting the firm to some expense.

The case of the Julian Press has come up because it was published and has been written about, but the Under-Secretary knows that hon. Members have written to the Department on many occasions, and have sent examples, of the sort of thing sent through the post which has caused offence. We have never raised the subject on the Floor of the House because we have not wished to give these people cheap publicity. After all, if one publicises small boys throwing bricks over railway bridges as a result of which an engine driver is killed, someone else may follow their example. This is a serious matter, and it deserves the attention of the House.

4.3 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

Before I make any comment on the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) and spoken to by other hon. Members, I should like to make the Home Secretary's position quite clear. My right hon. Friend is responsible for the form of the law relating to obscene publications but he has no responsibility for the enforcement of that law. Enforcement is entirely a matter for the police and for the Director of Public Prosecutions. This is not only true of the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark, but answers the question posed a moment ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). Although, therefore, I can say without hesitation, as a parent and as a former teacher, that I agree with my hon. Friend's view of much of the material to which he has referred, it is not for me, as a Minister, to give any opinion in the way in which the law is enforced.

Here, perhaps, I may correct the impression given by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark when he said, in effect, that Ministers have accepted that though this material may shock and disgust it does not corrupt or deprave. Ministers could not express any opinion on the material: they could merely give information about the current interpretation of the law by the courts, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the police.

I should like to give as much information as I can about enforcement proceedings to help the hon. Member who is particularly concerned about magazines which are displayed at, and can be readily bought at, ordinary bookshops and bookstalls. In raising this issue he focused attention on material which offends against the present law.

I think it relevant to mention that a great many foreign magazines which otherwise might find their way on to our bookstalls are prevented from doing so by the operation of Section 42 of the Customs Consolidation Act, 1876. This prohibits the importation of obscene prints, paintings, photographs, books, cards lithographic or other engravings or any other indecent or obscene articles.

If Customs officials come across material subject to this prohibition, they have power to detain it under the Customs and Excise Act, 1952. The hon. Member was given information about the number of books and magazines seized in this way during the past 10 years in a Written Answer yesterday to a Question put by him to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Perhaps, because it is important, I would take the opportunity of correcting the report of this information given on page 2 of this morning's Times, in case it misled my hon. Friend and other hon. Members. All the material seized was forfeited and probably destroyed, but in every case of seizure the importer is sent a notice which gives him the right to show that the goods are not liable to seizure.

When such a claim is made, the case can be taken to a magistrates' court for the magistrates to decide whether or not the material in question is indecent or obscene. In 1968–69 and 1960–61, no such claims were made. In 1964–65 proceedings were undertaken as a result of claims and 152,254 books and magazines were forfeited after the proceedings in addition to the material destroyed without proceedings being taken. Because I think it important to develop this point, I will broaden the Answer given to my hon. Friend. In 1966–67 165 trade seizures involved 1,280,292 magazines, in 1967–68 245 trade seizures involved 611,917 magazines and in 1968–69 164 seizures involved 792,211 magazines. I have dealt only with magazines, although of course there are relevant figures for books as well. I hope this clears up any possible misunderstanding as to the scope of this part of the legislation.

The essential purpose of the Customs legislation is to deal with commercial consignments of pornography and most of the material seized in this way consists of trade consignments, shipped in bulk, usually from publishers in the United States sent to booksellers in this country. This brings me to the point made by my hon. Friend about the operation of the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, 1955. My hon. Friend said that the fact that no proceedings were brought under that Act since its enactment suggested that it has not been properly operated, but the primary purpose was to supplement the Customs legislation by deliberately prohibiting the importation of large numbers of horror comics. This was totally successful in that the mischief ceased immediately the Act was passed.

There has subsequently been little attempt to import horror comics, and there has been no prosecution for publishing them here. Generally, the kind of magazines to which my hon. Friend has referred would not be covered by the definition of "harmful publications" contained in the 1955 Act, since its main concern was with books or magazines consisting wholly or mainly of stories told in pictures. If these magazines are considered to be harmful, therefore, it would be more appropriate to prosecute under the Obscene Publications Act, 1959 and 1964, than under the 1955 Act; and that is why it has not been necessary to use the latter.

The prevention of the importation of indecent and obscene magazines deals with only one part of the problem. As regards material published in this country, the Obscene Publications Acts, 1959 and 1964, make it an offence to circulate, sell, let on hire, give, lend, or offer for sale or for letting on hire any obscene article. If the magazine to which my hon. Friend referred are obscene, proceedings can be taken.

I have already said that the enforcement of the law is a matter for the police. It is open to anyone who thinks that a particular magazine or book or any other article is obscene to give full particulars to the police, who will decide whether proceedings should be instituted. In most instances the police will consult the Director of Public Prosecutions, who will be able to advise them as to whether action under the Obscene Publications Acts would be appropriate. In giving this advice, the Director takes into account his knowledge of the general attitude of the courts and the consideration that the publicity attending an unsuccessful prosecution may well result in an even greater distribution of the kind of material complained of.

My hon. Friend quoted from a publication that he said had been found in the West Riding and which, I think he said, had been purchased at or which came from—I am not quite certain—premises in my own city of Leeds. Because this is now, as I understand it, in the hands of the Director of Public Prosecutions, it is not a matter on which I should comment today.

Whatever view the Director holds, it is also open to any individual to initiate a private prosecution, although, for a variety of reasons, this is rarely done. I cannot say how many proceedings are taken under the Obscene Publications Acts against the kind of magazines at present in question, because books and magazines are not recorded separately for statistical purposes. However, the number of people prosecuted under these Acts in 1966 was 115, in 1967 it was 105, and in 1968 it was 124. Therefore, there can be no doubt but that action is being taken to enforce the Acts, but whether publishers of those particular magazines are prosecuted must depend on whether the magazines are thought to be obscene within the meaning of the Acts.

This brings us to the central issue. What hon. Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Newark in particular, have been saying is that there is a difference of opinion over what constitutes obscenity for the purpose of the criminal law. It is, therefore, the definition of "obscenity" to which we must look. The definition is as follows, and it is this that we have to take into account: an article 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. This definition in the 1959 Act follows the recommendation of the Select Committee on Obscene Publications which reported at the beginning of 1958. The Committee based its definition on the ruling of Chief Justice Cockburn in 1868 that the test of obscenity should be whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those…into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall. As Mr. Justice Stable pointed out in Regina v. Secker in 1954, the charge is not that the tendency of the article is to shock or disgust, but to deprave and corrupt. The Committee considered that, although the expression "deprave and corrupt" was difficult to define with academic precision, it would be preferable to retain it in default of a better alternative. They considered the possibility of starting afresh with a completely new definition but agreed with the Society of Authors that this would be merely "swapping horses", and that we should find ourselves in the courts forced back on the use of dictionaries and, following the inevitable circle, come right back to where we began. This is why the basic definition of obscenity—the tendency to deprave and corrupt—was left unchanged.

The Committee recommended that the common law definition should be clarified in two respects. In the first place, they agreed that in determining whether the tendency of the material was to deprave and corrupt the work should be judged "as a whole". This means that the courts cannot look at a single illustration of the kind described by my hon. Friend and decide on the basis of that one picture that a whole magazine is obscene or indecent under the Act. This may seem over-liberal, but the alternative, under which the work could be judged obscene by reference to isolated passages without considering the total effect would, as the Committee pointed out, if taken to its logical conclusion, deprive the reading public of the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Fielding and Smollett, except in expurgated versions.

The second clarification was to require that all the circumstances should be taken into consideration when deciding who would be likely to read or hear the material concerned. This requires the court to look at the circumstances in which any article is circulated or distributed, and enables a narrower view to be taken of obscenity where direct distribution to young people is concerned. A special safeguard is thus provided for them. This means that the fact that a magazine has been on sale in a shop in which children can buy sweets and comics—the situation which was of particular abhorrence to my hon. Friend—would be a relevant consideration in any criminal proceedings.

I have spent some time describing the definition of obscenity and have taken advantage of the little extra time that we have because this is the important matter in the answer to my hon. Friend and in the wider discussions that are taking place. The definition is wide and enables proceedings to be taken against these magazines under the Obscene Publications Acts, if they have a tendency to deprave and corrupt. This brings me back to that central issue.

The definition contained in the Acts is wide enough to cover anything which may be considered obscene, but it is for the courts to decide in any particular instance whether any material is obscene, whether it has a tendency to deprave and corrupt. It was the deliberate intention of Parliament that this should be so.

I should point out that what may be considered indecent or obscene in one context may not be in another. What may be acceptable in a medical text book may not be acceptable in a teenager's magazine. That is why it is essential that the courts should be able to decide, as a matter of fact, in the circumstances of each case, whether the material complained of is of such a character as to make it criminally obscene.

But it is not only a question of facts. The concept of what is likely to deprave and corrupt changes rapidly. When George Eliot's novel "Adam Bede" was first published in the last century it was considered as indecent and likely to corrupt because it gave a detailed description of the experiences of an unmarried mother. Such condemnation would be unthinkable now. In the last 10 years concepts of indecency and obscenity have changed perhaps more rapidly than ever before. That is a matter in which it is impossible to arrive at objective criteria.

May I quote the leader in The Times last Wednesday, which commended itself to me and perhaps it will do so to the House: There will probably never be a truly satisfactory law of obscenity. Its application will always depend to some extent upon subjective judgment and therefore on prevailing fashions of thought. I think it would be relevant if in this debate I mentioned that the Select Committee specifically said that in drafting their amended definition they had been particularly careful to avoid increasing the existing difficulties in dealing with the trade in pornography while making sure that there should be no undue interference with the free expression of opinion and the rights of the individual, which characteristically my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North used as the starting point in what he had to say. The Select Committee was treading the difficult path between total permissiveness and unjustifiable restriction. It was attempting to achieve a rational balance between the views of those who believe in complete freedom of expression and those who believe that expression should be more strictly regulated. This question is now moving into the field of current discussion, but that is what the existing legislation is based upon.

It would be outside the scope of this debate to comment further on definitions. I have tried to show that the definition does bite in a good many cases which, I think, concern hon. Members. At the same time, we have to remember that what we are dealing with is conduct which should be a criminal offence. We are not dealing with immorality. Immorality as such is not an offence against the law. We are dealing with an area in which it is necessary to draw a line between what is simply offensive and what is so offensive and harmful as to justify involving the sanctions of the criminal law to eliminate it.

There are no objective criteria which show where that line is to be drawn. The function of the present law is not to lay down an immutable standard of test but to provide means of proscribing material where it can be shown that such material is harmful because of its tendency to deprave or to corrupt.

I come now to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, who complained that his constituents had received distasteful circulars through the post without having asked for them. The same matter has been raised by other hon. Members in recent months. My hon. Friend mentioned one of the publications, and there is another which hon. Members have written to me about as well.

It is possible to take action against material sent through the post if it comes within Section 11 of the Post Office Act, 1953, which prohibits, among other things, the sending of a postal packet containing anything indecent or obscene. This enables me to reply also to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark on a similar point. Use is made of that provision. In 1968, about 6,000 postal packets were found to be in contravention of it. Most of the material was detained and destroyed, and successful prosecutions were taken by the Director of Public Prosecutions in 21 oases. The Obscene Publication Acts, 1959 and 1964 also may have some bearing if the material tends to deprave or corrupt anyone likely to read it.

We have referred the circulars to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who has decided that the circulars themselves cannot be considered either indecent or obscene, even if the books which they advertise are indecent or obscene. There would, therefore, be no action which could be taken against the circulars. In view of the Director's opinion that pro- ceedings should not be taken against these circulars, I have advised other hon. Members, and I advise my hon. Friend, that their constituents should write to the publishers of the circulars telling them that they do not wish to receive any more material of that kind. Also, I think, the variation on that theme suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North might commend itself to other hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark has rendered a valuable service in raising this subject. I am inclined to think that a social climate in which issues of this kind are seen as subjects for serious concern and discussion is a healthier one than when debatable issues are thought to be soluble in, so to speak, absolute terms, and I think that it is healthy also that the subject can be discussed at all, as it might not nave been in some circles 10 or 15 years ago. There is no doubt that the question of how far the criminal law should control what we can or choose to see and read is exercising many people. I hope that I have made it clear that the solution to the present difficulties inevitably involves some subjective judgment, which can only be left to the determination of the courts in individual cases. This is a responsibility which the police and the courts are continuing to discharge.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Four o'clock.