HC Deb 22 June 1971 vol 819 cc1195-8

3.32 p.m.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Walthamstow, East)

I beg to move: That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the sale of offensive literature. The Title of the Bill has been drawn in wide terms to allow it to cover a number of different tasks. It is particularly aimed at doing away with the window displays outside pornographic bookshops—those shops which are euphemistically called "dirty" bookshops.

There is no intention in the Bill of limiting the rights of adults to buy whatever literature they require. Since the Obscene Publications Act, 1959, we have all become aware of how pornographic bookshops have multiplied not only in the centre of London but throughout the country. They have reached a stage where many people are writing to their Members of Parliament asking what this House proposes to do about restricting the displays in and, indeed, about the growth of these shops. Accepting the right of the ordinary person to read what he or she wishes, I am sure that it would not be our wish to limit the sale of pornography from those shops so much as to make them a less unpleasant form of commercial enterprise than they now are. While we must recognise that there is a minority taste for pornography—I stress that I believe it is a minority taste—I also think that we have a right, when considering minority tastes, to make sure that they do not and are not allowed to have preference over the wishes and the moral standards of the great bulk of the population. I submit that those bookshops, particularly the window displays, are indeed giving a minority a preference over the majority which we surely should stop.

I stress the displays of these bookshops because, alas, they are no longer limited to areas like Soho but are spreading out into the suburbs of London, as I know since I represent a London suburban constituency. Indeed, from the letters which I have already received since the Bill was announced they are to be found in towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom and are clearly giving a great deal of offence.

The tragedy is that the kind of literature sold by these shops, far from being of any literary merit, is frankly trash. Even worse, it is depraved trash. It is trash which suggests that sex must always be depraved, perverted or brutal. It is trash which suggests that violence is part of our daily diet. Not unnaturally, parents are concerned about the possible effects which these shop windows may have on their children who see them on their way home from school. What is worse, they know their children are at liberty to go into those shops and buy such magazines without any check at all.

It therefore seems that the time has come for some kind of control to be exercised over these bookshops. I suggest that we should follow the practice in Sweden. The Swedes are further ahead than most European countries in their approach to the sexual morals of the modern society. They have laws which prohibit window displays outside these shops. They restrict the advertising of such shops to the one word "Porno" written over them, while the windows remain blank. Thus, the freedom of the adult is there to buy a pornographic book, but equally the public are not affronted by the indecent or depraved display which these shops go in for. This, therefore, would be the first purpose of the Bill.

The problem is to define "pornography". Rather than seek to use the Obscene Publications Act for that definition, I suggest that we might use the concept of the reasonable man and his opinion as the basis for the Bill. This concept was first advanced by the late Lord Halsbury in a libel case in 1894. His test of libel was whether, under the circumstances in which the writing was published, reasonable men would be likely to understand it in a libellous sense". It seems that if we use the concept of the reasonable man and his opinion, we will shift the onus from the person who feels that something is obscene but has to prove that it tends to deprave or corrupt to the shopkeeper who will have to prove that his window display is not offensive. I suggest that at the first whiff of this Bill a good many of the window displays would be taken down very quickly. I also suggest that we should follow the Swedish practice of limiting these shops to some very simple sign like "Porno", "Porn Shop" or "Sex bookshop".

Lastly, the Bill aims to safeguard children from the kind of literature which is now being sold. I suggest a measure of censorship, for I would have it that no one under 18 years of age should be allowed to buy any literature from these shops.

I believe that if my Bill achieves those three principal tasks it will get rid of a nuisance and an affront to public decency which is causing a great deal of concern to many people. I appreciate that at this late stage in the Session my Bill is unlikely to go through its remaining stages, but I hope that the House will give me leave to introduce it because I believe that the window displays of the bookshops are an affront to public decency, and should not be countenanced by a civilised society.

3.40 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I rise to oppose what I regard as a thoroughly silly proposal. Censorship has been tried by countless Governments through countless generations. It never works. It only makes the censored subject more attractive. The Danes had the courage to say, "Let us stop this nonsense". They held a pornographic festival, which was a great success. After three years they had another one and lost £150,000 on it because everybody had got bored with the subject. Equally, that has been the fate of their shops. Pornographic shops in Denmark have been reduced to quite a small percentage of what they were. Indeed, pornography has become almost entirely a Danish export trade, and the same sort of thing seems to be happening here. Because there is permissiveness about this kind of thing, it is becoming more and more of a bore, and I believe that that is the way to deal with it.

The idea that we should make a shop look respectable seems to be the most absurd of the lot. After all, if the shop looks objectionable it at least confines its custom to those who want something objectionable and are sufficiently uninhibited and shameless to go through the door. If the shop has a nice, restrained, polite look about it, with a small if rude word over the door, many people may go into it.

I regard the Bill as silly and retrograde, and I do not think that the hon. Member should be given leave to introduce it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson, Mr. Biggs-Davison, Mr. Deakins, Mr. Iremonger, Mr. Kaufman, Mr. St. John-Stevas, and Mr. Parkinson.