HC Deb 23 July 1969 vol 787 cc1901-12

12.42 a.m.

Mr. John Cordle (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

At this late hour, I do not intend to delay the House long concerning the subject matter which I wish to discuss. I notice on the board outside in the Lobby that there are still 27 hon. Members who wish to bring their matters of importance to the attention of the House and I shall, therefore, take the minimum time.

I believe that the matter which I wish to discuss—the question of obscenity and the permissive society—is of prime importance. I believe that it is causing a great deal of anxiety to a vast majority of decent people. At this stage, I would like wholeheartedly to associate myself with those who drafted Motion No. 407 on the subject of public decency and the Arts Council:

[That this House rejects the recommendations of Lord Goodman's working party of the Arts Council that the statutes of 1959 and 1964 (Obscene Publications) and 1968 (Theatres) should be repealed; and calls for reasonable safeguard of public decency inherent in these statutes to be retained.]

As The Times rightly argued the other day, over the last few years politics has been dominated by economic questions, such as the standard of living and the balance of payments. Increasingly, however, people are becoming mare concerned with the quality of life rather than with the money which they have in their pockets. If one is to believe the reports of Labour Party meetings, apparently even that party have become more aware recently of quality rather than quantity. This all means that political argument is becoming oriented towards a discussion of ends rather than means, of values rather than valuables.

Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer seems to have taken this fact aboard. Many of us will have read with interest his speech last week-end, in which he defended the so-called permissive society and put forward the view that permissiveness as we know it today could be co-related with civilisation. If he really believes this to be true, then ought not he to accept administrative responsibility for Customs and Excise? The Chancellor's speech, and the extraordinary recent report of the Arts Council, advocating the abolition of censorship of books, are two of the main reasons for my wishing to discuss tonight the question of contemporary morality.

What is being advocated today is more than the abolition of censorship. It is the abolition of standards of decency. It is not realism that would be encouraged, but the public disposal of what seems to be sewage. Still we keep lids on our dustbins; still we have doors to our lavatories. Surely there are limits to what we are prepared to tolerate in public; and this not only for the sake of the children, but because we will not allow the complete debasement of life in the name of liberty or art.

Has not the Home Secretary complete responsibility for children under the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, 1955? The possibility of successful prosecution for obscenity is a deterrent for some, although the risqué has undoubted appeal, and there may well be publishers who will risk penalties in the hope of getting away with nasty stuff in a big and profitable way. Is not this the responsibility of the Attorney-General?

Last week, in The Times, Sir Robert Lusty, of Hutchinson's, the publishers, said: We have to consider, also, the fact that English is the language first or second of countless millions. The perversion of the English language is an issue of world importance. It is not a cosy problem for this country alone. Whatever may be said of our position as a major political Power, there is no doubt that we have literary and moral prestige, both among the emergent nations and wherever men seek culture and higher education, and we cannot afford to slide further into cesspit morals and cesspit language. I believe that the British Council will find its task almost impossible if the only English culture to offer is obscene.

It is always assumed that if one questions today's moral standards—or at least, those standards which are acceptable in progressive circumstances—one is being guilty of appalling reaction, and is dubbed a "square" or a Puritan beside whom Queen Victoria would seem positively libertine. If that really is the case then all I can say is that the reactionaries, in my experience, are in the majority and make up, for example, the vast number of parents in this country.

The other assumption which is made about those of us who question today's standards is that we are somewhat against freedom and even more against fun. Nothing is further from the truth. As a Conservative, I naturally believe in the freedom of the individual, but one cannot point out often enough that there is a difference between freedom and excess, between liberty and licence. It was argued, to my mind incontrovertibly, more than 200 years ago, that "Freedom must be limited if it is to be possessed."

What of the argument that we are against fun? I pointed out in this House to the then Home Secretary, almost 10 years ago, that we were suffering from a gust of lust. Since then the gusts have reached the proportions of a tornado. Are the results of the excess increased happiness and enjoyment? I personally think not.

Can anyone argue that the moral climate today, popularised in the newspapers or advertisements and on the television, has nothing to do with the appalling social problems which we frequently hear about—the growing number of abortions among young women, the increased incidence of veneral disease, drug addiction, and the number of unmarried mothers deserted by the fathers of their children after one shallow and intemperate affair. Is this the best happiness we in this House can offer to our young people? Ought not the Postmaster-General to intervene to clean up some of the questionable television plays which are so often shown at present?

What is the solution to the moral problems of today. I do not believe that it can be found in knocking down what remains of our traditional moral code and structure of social responsibility. What we need is a restatement in modern terms of the values which have given purpose to our life in the future. They are the values in every happy family and home and which can be endorsed by the Home Secretary, if he so wishes.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) writing in the Sunday Express on 13th July, under the heading, "Is this what you want for your children?", said: Let us call a halt for the time being to amateur legislation of all kinds until we have a little more opportunity to assess its effects. There is no system of law that I have ever heard of which is not in need of improvement. But laws to be effective must have some regard to the known weaknesses of human nature and the tendency of rules to be abused and stretched not least by the very people for whose protection they are devised. The Home Secretary has a general responsibility for law and order in the widest sense and should see that the present trend of obscenity and the permissive society which is leading to the; breakdown of law and order must stop.

12.53 a.m.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Derbyshire, West)

I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) has raised this subject, although it is one on which it is difficult to talk seriously in the short time at our disposal at this late hour. It is a philosophical discussion as much as anything else, embracing the whole moral character of our society and the way that we as legislators should be trying to lead it.

I have been increasingly worried over the past few months about where we are going and what we here in Parliament are doing. The latest example is the recommendation by Lord Goodman, on behalf of the Arts Council, on the obscenity laws. It highlights the whole affair.

There is no doubt that in our present society we are becoming more permissive. With this permissiveness should go, but it does not, an increasing awareness of the need for self-discipline. In regard to the obscenity laws, it is ridiculous to try to legislate, or to keep the existing legislation, in order to try to guide the morale of people and the words which they see in print and should not see in print. But I cannot see how we can get round this problem unless publishers will accept self-discipline.

One of the dangers that we face is that as a society we are not applying any self-discipline to ourselves. Since 1964, by legislation in this House, we have gone a long way towards encouraging the increased permissiveness of our society and within it. I do not need to enumerate all the various Private Members' Bills which have gone through or are going through Parliament on these lines: the Sexual Offences Bill, the Abortion Bill and the Divorce Bill, and so on. These have been factors in liberalising our society. But with this process of liberalisation there has not gone an increasing awareness by the ordinary citizen or by those of us in the House of the need for self-restraint and the need for self-discipline. By this denial, we need the Government to hold to well-tried standards.

Society is becoming decadent in many respects and I am worried sick over this. I have four children in their late teens and in our present social climate they are going through all the stresses and strains which I had to overcome, but times were different and easier then. Millions of teenagers are in the same plight, and I am deeply worried for them.

What can we, as parliamentarians, do to help? What course can we propose to the Government, not only on the obscenity laws but in other matters? We must do something because our age group, the 40s to 50s., have a duty to set an example and prepare the framework within which society must live. We can influence not only this generation, but future generations. While we cannot go back to a restrictive, Victorian type of society, laying down rules covering every aspect of behaviour, we must do something positive.

Our young people are no worse and no better than the youngsters of previous generations, but they have more money to spend and they receive much more attention from the newspapers and television. These media of communication highlight the activities of those few who misbehave. For example, last week, in Australia a rather stupid young lady named Marianne Faithfull unhappily did herself a damage by taking an overdose of drugs. The amount of coverage this incident received in the Press and on television was out of all proportion to her importance. I do not know—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must relate his remarks to some Ministerial responsibility. I am not sure that what he is now saying is relevant to the Minister in question.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

In our increasingly permissive society no good is served by highlighting these bad activities and ignoring much of the good. We have a responsibility to say what is good, and while we may be called "squares," that should not stop our making an effort to improve matters. We must create a society in which this and future generations can live happily. Whether or not Lord Goodman was right in all respects, the Government must think more deeply on this issue. They must say, "This is far enough" and act responsibly for the sake of our children. I fear that they are not doing that in other moral issues.

I return to what I said at the outset. I hope that we can form a society of which we and future generations can be proud and which, for our children, represents a fine inheritance.

1.00 a.m.

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

As the parent of a young family, like the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins), I would be the last to deny that there are problems in our society. It would do all hon. Members good to have a look at books such as Booth's "Life and Labour in London in the 19th Century" or Mayhew's book of a similar title dealing with a slightly earlier period, or another book that I have been reading, called the "Bitter Cry of Outcast London". This applies to the hon. Lady the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight), the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle), and my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling), who, although he sits for a Southern constituency talks a great deal about his youth in Liverpool.

When we look at this we find that the quality of human existence 50 or more years ago was a good deal worse than it is now. I suspect that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West, has the key to this—it is the unusual occurrences that are spotlighted through the organs of communication. In meeting young people in all walks of life I find that their view of the unusual cases is not all that different from ours.

We saw a large number of young people walking to Wembley last week. If they had done a bit of militia military service they would not have worn the shoes they did—that is something they would have learned the hard way at an earlier age—but their hearts were in the right place. There were far more of them doing that than the sort of things about which we read in certain organs of the Press.

I do not want to put this out of perspective, but I feel like a former Member of the House who was before a Tory selection committee last weekend and was asked for his views on sex and crime, etc. He said that he was "agin them". This is true of everyone in all political parties. Whatever we can do politically, I am not sure that Governments of any political persuasion can give a lead here. It lies much deeper than that, in parenthood, in the chapels and the churches and the political parties.

I am not convinced, despite the evidence brought to my notice in last Friday's debate—and it rather sets one back to see what is being put out, particularly for young people—that the situation is as bad as we sometimes think.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the point about Government responsibility, would he not accept that when a Government makes it easier for a man to sit on his backside rather than work this is not the right kind of climate?

Mr. Rees

I cannot see that point. I accept that there are the feckless, as there have always been. If we are to talk about a society in which people are sitting on their backsides doing nothing, there were far more people doing that in the 1930s than now. This is another example of exaggeration. It is the mythology of politics. I get it with race relations, when it is said that a number of people are drawing social security, but when there are investigations it is found to be a little bit of mythology. There are examples of this, but they are taken completely out of the wider perspective.

The Home Secretary is responsible for the form of the law. To that degree I accept that Governments have a responsibility. They are responsible for the law relating to obscene publications. But the Home Secretary has no responsibility for its enforcement. This is entirely a matter for the police advised, as necessary by the Director of Public Prosecutions. It is open to anyone who thinks that a particular book, magazine, or any other article is obscene to give full particulars to the police, who will decide whether proceedings should be instituted.

In most cases, the police will consult the Director of Public Prosecutions, who will be able to advise whether action under the Obscene Publications Acts would be appropriate. In giving this advice, the Director of Public Prosecutions 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 a greater distribution of the kind of material about which complaint is made. That is a factor to be taken into account. Whatever view the Director of Public Prosecutions holds, and with many qualifications which it would not be appropriate to go into now, it is open to any individual to initiate a private prosecution.

Perhaps I might inform the House about the use made of the laws. First, there are the Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964. I observe that the hon. Gentleman was not making a political point in choosing 1964. But it so happens that there was concern about obscenity in 1959 and in 1964, so it has gone over a longer period. These prohibit the printing, publishing, selling or letting for hire of obscene articles. During 1968, in the Metropolitan Police District alone, over 26,000 articles, including books, photographs and films, were seized under those Acts, mainly from bookshops. In most cases the articles were destroyed after a disclaimer had been signed by the proprietor of the shop giving up all right of possession, but proceedings were brought in 38 cases, usually where there was evidence of continuous trading. The number of people prosecuted under these Acts throughout England and Wales in the same year was 130; in 1967 it was 118; and in 1966 it was 132.

Section 42 of the Customs Consolidation Act, 1876—it seems that there was a problem in this respect in 1876 as well—prohibits the importation of indecent or obscene prints, paintings, photographs, books, cards, lithographic or other engravings, or any other indecent or obscene articles. If Customs officials are satisfied that any material sent into this country contravenes the 1876 Act, they have power to seize it under the Customs and Excise Act, 1952, and, unless the person to whom the material was addressed wishes to contest the seizure in a magistrates' court they may then destroy it. This Act is used mainly to prevent the large-scale importation, particularly from America, of indecent or obscene books and magazines.

The use which is made of it can be demonstrated by figures which I have given before, but perhaps I can paraphrase them. In 1966–67, there were 165 trade seizures, involving approximately 1¼ million magazines and approximately 205,000 books. In 1967–68, there were 245 such seizures, involving about 612,000 magazines and about 324,000 books. In 1968–69, there were 164 seizures, involving about 792,000 magazines and about 703,000 books.

Section 11(1)(b) of the Post Office Act, 1953, prohibits the sending of postal packets which contain indecent or obscene articles. About 6,000 postal packets, mainly from abroad, were found to be in contravention of it. Most of the material was detained or destroyed, but successful proceedings were taken by the Director of Public Prosecutions in 21 cases involving 4,630 photographs, 1,272 negatives, 31 cine films and 58 written publications of various kinds.

There is also Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, 1824, and Section 2 of the Vagrancy Act, 1838, which prohibit the public display of any obscene print, picture or other indecent exhibition, and proceedings were taken against 35 people in 1968. In so far as the Home Office has responsibility for the form of the law, and the Director of Public Prosecutions enforces the law, I have given evidence that there is concern about this, and there is a large amount of confiscation.

There is concern about young people. For the purposes of the Obscene Publications Acts of 1969 and 1964, an article is deemed to be obscene if its effect, taken as a whole, is 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 definition requires the courts to take into consideration all the circumstances surrounding the distribution or circulation of any particular material. This means that the fact that the material in question had been deliberately sent to young people, or had been shown in a place to which they might reasonably be assumed to have access, would be relevant, and is an additional safeguard for young people.

Then there is the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, 1955. As I explained last time, this has dealt with the problem of the importation of horror comics, and things of that kind. Since the passing of that Act, there has been little attempt to import horror comics, and there has been no prosecution for publishing them here. Inquiries have shown that there is still a flourishing market in the United States for the sale of horror comics, so that the explicit prohibition contained in the 1955 Act cannot be dispensed with.

I have deliberately not gone into the problem of what is obscenity. I see a great deal of it. A lot of stuff is brought to my notice. I confess that to my untutored, layman's mind it seems to be obscene, but, looked at in the context of the definition of obscenity over the years—and it is not a decision of Ministers, but of the Director of Public Prosecutions—it is not considered in that way. The present law has been in existence for only about 10 years, and the current debate is in its early stages.

I make no comment about a report issued by the Arts Council. It has not been brought to the notice of my right hon. Friend, and I have not had the opportunity of reading it. I take note of the Motion on the Order Paper, but it is not the responsibility of my right hon. Friend. In any case, I think that I should be trespassing in the context of future legislation if I were to do that. It has been ruled that consideration of a change in law is out of order, and I was careful not to trespass on that as I had not had the benefit of seeing a copy of the report.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

I have.

Mr. Rees

I know that my hon. Friend will let me have a copy of it.

Looking at the problem as a whole, it is interesting to note that the description of obscenity has recently broadened. As I argued last time, what is obscenity seems to change with the passage of time. There is a social attitude towards it. It now seems to deal not only with the extent to which sexual matters might be more freely discussed, but also with the extent to which the description of other matters such as violence and drug taking are to be controlled in the same way. This illustrates the changing attitude over the years to what is obscenity, and, also, the desirability for it to be set out in terms which are broad enough to reflect changing social considerations.

Perhaps it could be said that this broadening of the discussion—not the fact of obscenity—is a sign of social maturity, and that people are prepared to discuss it with a far more open mind than they might have done at one time, but the hon. Gentleman chose to put it in the context of obscenity and the permissive society.

I accept that obscenity is related to different forms of society, but I think I have made the point that it seems to have been a problem in all forms of society over the years. If one visits the ruins of mediaeval and ancient Italy one sees that it is not unlikely that obscenity was a question which exercised people's minds in those days, long before the words "permissive society" were used.

In a different context—in relation to drugs—my right hon. Friend expressed the view that permissiveness is one of the most unlikeable words invented in recent years, and I agree. He suggested that it might be better if we could regard ourselves as a responsible society. My view is that this is nearer the mark. We all of us exaggerate because we see the unusual rather than the typical. That is not to say that there are not problems. There are, but they arise largely out of affluence.

It is odd that when we are talking about the state of the country we come back to the fact that our young people are better off materially than ever before. This gives rise to problems, but I am not sure that it is permissiveness. It has something to do with economic independence and debates we have had about votes at 18 as opposed to 21. To a large degree it is a question of communication and the way in which certain organs of the Press deal with these questions.

It has been valuable to have another look at this question of obscenity. The Government and my right hon. Friend have a responsibility for the form of this legislation. I can assure the hon. Member that our responsibilities will be exercised.