HC Deb 19 March 1971 vol 813 cc1875-95

(1) A person shall be guilty of an offence if he sends or causes to be sent to another person any book, magazine or leaflet (or advertising material for any such publication) which he knows or ought reasonably to know is unsolicited and which describes or illustrates sexual techniques.

(2) A person found guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £100 for a first offence and to a fine not exceeding £400 for any subsequent offence.—[Mr. David Steel.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.5 a.m.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

I wish, at the outset, to draw the attention of the House to an interesting exchange relevant to this debate which took place at Question Time yesterday between the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) and the Home Secretary. In a supplementary question, the right hon. Member for Ashford asked: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, while hon. Members are unlikely to agree on what constitutes an obscene publication, probably we all agree that the mailing of unsolicited and offensive material at random which is designed to advertise such publications is a growing and indefensible public nuisance? Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the law bites on this abuse?". The Home Secretary replied: Yes, Sir, and I am aware of the concern. The Post Office Act, 1953, prohibits the sending by post of material that is obscene or indecent. My right hon. Friend will have seen in the last few days that a conviction has been obtained under the Act. That shows that the law bites."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March, 1971; Vol. 813, c. 1637.] With respect to the Home Secretary, he did not answer the precise question that his right hon. Friend had asked, because his right hon. Friend was probably referring to unsolicited and offensive material and not to the sending of obscene and indecent material, which is covered under the Post Office Acts. It is this trend of sending unsolicited material, including advertisements in publications which are not necessarily obscene but which are nevertheless offensive to many people, that has caused so much concern and has been the cause of a growing volume of correspondence which I have received from the public.

This particularly arose with a circular from Julian Press, about which Questions were asked in the House some time ago. I received a number of copies of this circular and letters about it from constituents. The circular advertised "A Manual of Sex Technique," and while the sending of this to certain individuals might be regarded by them as offensive, the real objection is that the literature was sent to individuals named on envelopes and, in some cases, presumably in error by the company, to school children.

In one case it was sent to a constituent of mine, a woman recently widowed, and this naturally upset her. In another case a man wrote to me complaining that a copy of the leaflet had been addressed to his father who had recently died. One can easily see how offensive this practice could be. It is clear that this sort of thing cannot be caught under the Post Office Acts, because neither the leaflets nor the publications they advertise are necessarily obscene or indecent.

It seemed appropriate that, while the Bill was proceeding through the House, we should take the opportunity to debate this matter in the hope that the Bill, which is designed to protect people from receiving unsolicited goods, might be made to deal with the matter. My first task, therefore, was to frame a new Clause which would make it an offence to send offensive matter through the post, but of course this proved a difficult one. It is almost as impossible to define "offensive" as it is to define "obscene" and "indecent". I found that it was not a practical proposition.

Following the publicity which the new Clause received on being tabled, a journalist, Miss Angela Ince, wrote an article in the London Evening News which began: Liberal M.P. David Steel, talking last week about the Unsolicited Goods and Services Bill, said: 'People have a right to be protected from receiving unsolicited in their homes literature which they find offensive.' Mr. Steel was in fact talking about sex manuals, pornographic pamphlets and unpleasant literature that you's rather the children didn't sec, but he could well widen his scope. Only recently a pamphlet which I found extremely offensive and certainly didn't ask for thudded through my letter box. It has thudded through a lot of other letter boxes too, and would indeed have gone to just about every home in the country had the postal strike not mercifully intervened. Lavishly produced and illustrated, with explicit line drawings and full frontal photographs, it is pretty apparent that no expense has been spared in the production of this pernicious little manual. It is called Your Guide to Decimal Money, and it is offensive, as far as I am concerned, because it has finally destroyed any hopes I may have had of coming to grips with decimal currency. That article illustrates the difficulty of trying to define "offensive", because many people would regard as offensive literature such as election addresses of certain candidates, which are received unsolicited. We cannot enter into the mind of every recipient of every piece of literature in an attempt to define what people will or will not find offensive.

In framing the new Clause I have tried to deal with a problem which caused so much initial concern in the House and which is still a main cause of concern. I refer to …any book, magazine or leaflet (or advertising material for any such publication)… which the sender knows is unsolicited and '…which describes or illustrates sexual techniques. I am well aware that the new Clause does not cover some types of publication which are still offensive. An example of this kind was sent to me through the post the other day in the form of an unsolicited leaflet from a certain hook service. The leaflet stated: An associate company offers a wide range of publications for sexual groups including homosexual, bi-sexual, lesbian, heterosexual. An illustrated brochure of books is available covering our extensive range…Please state your requirements below. To receive that unsolicited would be extremely offensive to many people, but it would not be caught by the new Clause. I believe that we must try to relieve people of the distress and repugnance they feel on receiving such publications, and the Bill gives us the opportunity.

I hope that the new Clause will be acceptable to the sponsors of the Bill, because although I agree that it is by no means perfect I should like the House to add it to the Bill now, so that when it goes to the other place both the sponsors of the Bill and, in particular, the Government will have an opportunity of satisfactorily improving it in order that we may deal with a menace which is causing grave concern to the public.

11.15 a.m.

Mr. Phillip Goodhart (Beckenham)

I have the greatest sympathy with the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel), and I, too, would like to see an end put to the practice he has described. He has mentioned the Julian Press. I believe that that organisation is now out of business, but some months ago it caused substantial embarrassment to a number of my constituents who then complained to me, and I wrote to the then Home Secretary.

But while I support the objectives of the new Clause, I believe that in practice there are certain difficulties. It seeks to make it illegal to send advertising material for …any hook, magazine or leaflet which describes or illustrates sexual techniques. When I learned, Mr. Speaker, that you intended to call the new Clause, I turned to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary for a definition of "technique". The definition given is: Manner of artistic execution or performance in relation to formal or practical details as distinct from general effect, expression, sentiment, etc.; the mechanical or formal part of an art, especially of any of the fine arts, also skill or ability in this department of one's art; mechanical skill in artistic work. That is a very wide definition.

Having looked at that definition, I found by the side of my dictionary the spring list of a most reputable firm of publishers, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, who are, I believe, to be entrusted with the grave responsibility of publishing the memoirs of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Huyton (Mr. Harold Wilson). They are certainly not publishers of pornographic literature.

The first book advertised in the list is "Memoirs of Hope: Renewal 1958–1962" by Charles de Gaulle. I have not read the book but I assume that none of the material in those memoirs could conceivably come within the scope of the new Clause.

The second book advertised is "Mary", by Vladimir Nabokov. The advertisement contains, in its turn, an advertisement for "Lolita". I cannot remember very much about that book, but I should not like to swear that in it there is no description of sexual technique, and in this catalogue we certainly have an advertisement for "Lolita".

The third book is "St. Urbain's Horseman", by Mordecai Richler. Again I have not read the book but the publishers' "blurb" reads in part: In 1967, while four hundred and fifty million people were starving and, in England, at least eighteen per cent. of this happy breed lived below subsistence level, and society's golden rule was alcoholism, drug addiction and inchoate brutality, Jacob Hersh, descendant of the House of David, was paid £15,000 NOT to direct a fun film, made love to his wife on crisp clean sheets.. and so on. That book describes some form of sexual technique, if only that of making love to one's wife on clean crisp sheets.

The next book in the list is "Love Child", by Maureen Duffy. The "blurb" states: This is a novel of ambiguity, of age, sex and intention. On holiday in their villa in Italy, a love affair develops between the mother and the father's secretary. Again, it seems probable that somewhere in its pages this book describes some sexual technique.

Then we have "Zee & Co.", by Edna O'Brien. The "blurb" reads: Her aura is crimson, her body beautiful but barren, her manner a trifle raucous, her face masked with mechanical gaiety, her wardrobe of clothes vast. In the city of London in the year 1970, Zee is vicarious wife to Robert, a successful architect with a new found mistress…". I suspect that somewhere in this novel by Edna O'Brien there is a description of sexual technique.

The next book advertised is "Going all the Way" by Dan Wakefield. A description by Mr. Kurt Vonnegut is: I have read it and I am crazy about it. It is the truest and funniest sex novel any American will ever write. Again, one presumes that somewhere in its 320 pages there is a description of sexual technique.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)

I do not wish to add to the hon. Gentleman's literary list unduly, but he could include Shakespeare's "The Rape of Lucrece."

Mr. Goodhart

I would expect that if the Clause were adopted as it stands anybody advertising the complete works of Shakespeare might find himself in some difficulty.

I have gone through this list because Weidenfeld and Nicolson is, as I have said, a most reputable publishing firm and certainly five of the first six books appearing in its spring list might render it liable to prosecution merely for sending out its spring list. If the Clause were accepted as drafted, it would necessitate considerable changes in the publishing habits of all our leading publishers.

Indeed. I wonder where the Government would find themselves if we were to put on to the Statute Book the Clause as it stands; because, after all, it is not related only to human beings. Artificial insemination is a sexual technique of some importance in agriculture. I have no doubt that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has sponsored works of artificial insemination for farmers which are advertised by the Ministry and which, curiously enough, if the Clause were to be adopted as it stands, would render the Minister liable to a fine of £100, absurd though this result would be.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles is also a distinguished and leading light in the family planning movement. Can he lay his hand on his heart and say that absolutely no material is issued by the Family Planning Association which could conceivably under the very wide definition of "technique" be held to describe a sexual technique?

Mr. David Steel

It is certainly not sent unsolicited to people at random.

Mr. Goodhart

I am delighted to hear that. It may well be that some of the leaflets advertising the service and works of the Family Planning Association are distributed by well-meaning volunteers of the association in a way of which the hon. Gentleman is not wholly aware. That is not beyond the realms of possibility. If it is so, the hon. Gentleman and his movement would be liable to prosecution under the Clause as it stands.

I entirely support the hon. Gentleman's objective, because my constituents, like his, have been embarrassed by the types of literature which he has described, but with the very best will in the world I believe that we should get into very deep water if we were to accept the Clause as it stands, and its ramifications and possible application could lead to results which the hon. Gentleman and myself would not wish to bring about.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

I am not sure that reputable publishers would need to worry unduly about the effect of the Clause, because I cannot think that Weidenfeld and Nicolson or any other publishers, for that matter, issue lists to thousands of people at random. I received that list, but only because I have a personal involvement in literature, because I buy many books, and because I asked for the list. Similarly with O.U.P.'s list and Allen and Unwin's list. I should think that most publishers do not issue their lists at random in the way that Julian Press did and in the way of which the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) complained.

I have great sympathy with the new Clause. The House knows full well that I am against censorship and that I introduced a Private Member's Bill which sought to abolish all forms of censorship and to abolish the Post Office Act, but I object to the practice of Julian Press. I wrote to Julian Press and said so. I said that the reason I objected to it was that this brought the cause of freedom into disrepute, that it aroused a great deal of unnecessary antagonism to the free publication of books, and that this was a commercial practice and I greatly doubted whether Julian Press was very interested in the free publishing of books: it was interested in selling that book.

I have not seen that book. I do not know what it is like. I have no particular interest in it. I am getting a bit past it. I have no doubt that this type of book is quite useful to many people. If people want it there are other ways of obtaining books, not the way resorted to by Julian Press.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles mentioned election addresses and the booklet explaining decimal currency. Parliamentary registers are used for issuing election addresses. That is the use for which they are intended. They are not intended for the use of commercial advertisers and are not published for that purpose.

Some criticism has been expressed of the wording of the Clause. When the Minister examines the Clause sympathetically, as he doubtless will, he may well conclude that it could be drafted differently so as to prevent the sale of parliamentary registers to commercial advertisers. This might be another solution. I can see difficulties in that, but certainly I think there is a point here.

11.30 a.m.

I am not very worried about the publishing of the sort of book mentioned in this Clause. What I object to is the widespread dissemination of advertising material to people who have not asked for it, and to people who the publisher knows very well have not asked for it. People ought to be protected from that sort of thing. I do not refer only to books on sex. A lot of awful rubbish for which we have not asked comes through our letter boxes, and the people who organise parliamentary lobbies ought to look at the rubbish bins of this House when they would find what happens to most of the stuff that they send. It finds its way into the dustbins unopened.

The people who resort to these techniques are commercially stupid because they send out a lot of stuff for which nobody has asked and which nobody will read. I received the Julian Press leaflet, but I did not read it. I threw it away unread. I only read it when some of my constituents wrote to me about it. There are certain things that I never read at all. I merely look at the envelope and I know by the postmark or sometimes by the little inscription on the top left-hand corner of the envelope who has sent it, and it goes into the dustbin unopened. I refer to "South Africa Today", or one of those things which arrive about three times a week.

I certainly think that the Minister ought to consider this Clause. He might not be satisfied with the wording, but certainly there is a good intention here and I think the public ought to be protected from this great mass of unasked for advertising material of one sort and another. I hope the Minister will be able to provide some sort of protection for the consumer from this great mass of rubbish which comes flooding through our letter boxes. I am not very worried about books on sexual techniques. I think that many of these books are most useful. But there are other ways of advertising that are not offensive. There are other ways by which people who want books like this can get them. I only wish that the law was changed so that literature was much freer. However, that point is not covered in this Bill and I would be out of order if I carried on along those lines. However, I sympathise with the intentions expressed in the Clause.

Sir Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)

This is the second Bill which has been brought before the House to deal with unsolicited goods and services. In the last Parliament we had the Inertia Selling Bill which was introduced by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson). It is unfortunate that this excellent Clause did not appear earlier. However, that does not detract from the fact that it contains very worthy aims which I certainly support.

No doubt, many of our constituents have been grossly offended by some of the literature which has gone through their doors, advertising some of the things which are mentioned in this Clause. Some of this literature has been sent to most extraordinary addresses. I know of a case in which the literature was sent to a convent. It seems to me, therefore, that there should be some control over the sending of unsolicited material of this description and we ought to do all we can to control it.

Nevertheless, I can see the full force of the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) when he points out that we would enmesh a large number of innocent people if we adopted the particular wording of this proposed Clause. He mentioned the Family Planning Association. It may be that the Family Planning Association does not send out unsolicited material, but I am sure my hon. Friend is right when he says that a good deal of that organisation's literature is available unsolicited in places where it can be picked up. I am sure my hon. Friend knows that amongst university students and some schoolgirls in the higher age groups literature informing them of the services of the Family Planning Association is available. It is not our purpose to debate whether that is good, bad or indifferent. It is merely a fact that it is so, and we would involve the Family Planning Association in some difficulties.

Mr. David Steel

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Clause he will see that it states that it is an offence to send such material to some other person. If books or advertising material are available on bookstalls, this is not sending them to another person.

Sir S. McAdden

That is a matter for the lawyers to argue, and I am not a lawyer. Whether it could be argued that by putting such material in a place where a person could pick it up, one is sending that material is a legal point that I would not attempt to argue.

I am not worried only about the Family Planning Association. I am worried about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services who sends unsolicited material to local authorities advising them to make family planning advice available, which presumably would include something about sexual techniques, and presumably the local authorities would take his advice, in which case the Secretary of State would be in trouble.

I should now like to say a word on the subject raised by the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) about the Parliamentary Register. I understand that there is an abuse of the use of the Parliamentary Register, but it is wrong to assume that it is printed solely for the purpose of conducting elections. That is only one of its purposes. There are many legitimate organisations which make use of the Parliamentary Register for proper purposes.

Mr. Hamling

The particular abuse to which I object is the use of the Parliamentary Register for commercial advertising purposes.

Sir S. McAdden

What I am saying is that we must not fool ourselves into believing that it cannot be used for some other perfectly proper and legal purpose.

While I hope the Minister will give some moral support to this proposed Clause, as I am sure we all do, I think lie will find that the practical difficulties standing in its way—certainly the evidence cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham—will show that, like so many well-meaning proposals, it will not come to fruition in the form in which it is drafted.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I congratulate the sponsor and supporters of the Clause, which is an admirable attempt to achieve what hon. Members on both sides of the House have said is much needed in the country.

For a long time I have been in correspondence with successive Governments, Home Secretaries, Attorneys-General, and they have all given very good reasons for saying that something ought to be done but cannot be done at the moment. I should like to read a couple of extracts from letters that I have received. The first one was from the then Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department last year, dated 18th December, in which she concluded by saying that she was sorry to have been unhelpful in a situation which I am aware is causing anxiety to many but I hope that what I have said about the difficulties of changing the law will make clear the objections to such a course. I am, however, looking into these matters at the present time. After we had a change of Government I wrote to the present Attorney-General on similar lines, expressing to him some of the fears which had been expressed to me by my constituents about these unsolicited circulars and documents which had been flooding into my constituents' homes in Leicestershire. He rather poured cold water on the idea of the Government being able to do anything at present. He concluded by saying: The Home Secretary, who would be responsible for any legislation, is considering the problem of unsolicited circulars of this nature. I have seen no concrete results from the consideration given to the matter by Ministers of the previous Government and by the present Home Secretary. I am delighted, therefore, that at last something definite has been attempted by back benchers on both sides. No doubt, the new Clause has its flaws, though I do not think that there is much validity in some of the criticisms made on that score this morning. At least, it is an attempt to bring some control into this matter.

One of the reasons why I object to the flood of unsolicited circulars which has been going on throughout the Midlands for a number of years now is that they are directed in so haphazard a manner. I have a file here of letters from constituents who have complained that they never wanted or asked for the documents which have been sent to them. For example, to the 12-year-old daughter of a family in Leicestershire a circular was sent by the Julian Press, in a plain envelope and addressed personally to her as "Miss So-and-so". The enclosed circular was headed to the effect that here was something which all married women should know.

Surely, it is gross carelessness to send such a leaflet to an unmarried person, as was clearly indicated by the style of address, let alone to a child of 12. It is that sort of practice by the Julian Press and others who many of us on this side have found offensive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) gave one or two reasons why he thought the new Clause would be ineffective, but I felt that he missed the point. The Clause specifically says that such circulars have to be unsolicited. He gave what I thought the ludicrous example of the Minister of Agriculture perhaps being in trouble if he sent out certain leaflets relating to artificial insemination. I assure my hon. Friend that the Minister does not send such leaflets round. If he were to send a highly detailed and technical illustration of some method of artificial insemination to a famly, without being requested so to do, however, my view would be that the Clause would serve a useful purpose in preventing a repetition of that practice.

The object of the Clause is to make things more difficult for those who make a living by purveying pornography. In spite of its flaws, it will, I believe, make life much more difficult for them. At the last election, I promised my constituents that I would try to make life more difficult for such people. For that reason, if for no other, I shall support the hon. Gentleman the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) if he takes the matter to a Division.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

thank the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) for raising this matter. There is, I think, no hon. Member whose constituents have not been troubled by the receipt of these circulars, and the whole country, I believe, would like to find a satisfactory way of dealing with the menace.

I find myself in some difficulty personally because I am straying a long way from the preserves of trade and industry, but I shall enter this difficult field because I personally, and the Government as a whole, feel that there is here a problem to which a solution must be found, that is, to prevent the haphazard sending of unpleasant circulars on sexual matters, these circulars so often arriving, as has been said, in unfortunate and unhappy family circumstances which make the problem much more serious.

There has recently been a growth of interest both in what one might call straightforward biological matters to do with the nature of reproduction in both humans and animals and in the subject of sex education. There has been a greatly increased volume of publications in this field, a large proportion of which are entirely serious or academic. At the same time, and quite independently, there has been a tendency for more books to be advertised by the use of mailing lists in the way which has been described.

We wish to avoid penalising these two growing tendencies, neither of which is anything but good, for straightforward advertising by circular is in no sense objectionable, and the growth of knowledge in the whole subject of reproduction is clearly in the interest of nations.

11.45 a.m.

The other general point is that we must make a distinction between the book, the work itself, and the circular. Often, the circular is throughly objectionable but the book is quite innocuous. Equally, it is possible that the circular could be innocuous and the book itself, if one sent for it, rather objectionable. Examples were cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) of perfectly straightforward material advertising well known classical books which could lead to an offence under the Clause because those books, although not objectionable, contained descriptions of sexual techniques.

Clearly, therefore, we must be careful to analyse what the menace is. The menace is the invasion of people's privacy by the indiscriminate sending of circulars for which they have not asked and which in themselves cause offence. I hope that the House will bear with me if I identify what we are seeking to prevent, that is, the menace of unsolicited circulars of an unpleasant nature such as have been troubling many people, including many of my constituents, and which I wholeheartedly condemn.

If no other message goes out from our debate today than that the House of Commons is unanimous that this sort of thing is not to be tolerated, we shall at least have done a considerable service in that respect.

Mr. Hamling

I hope that the Minister will not direct attention solely to books about sex or matters like that but will have in mind also political pamphlets and publications, and so on.

Mr. Ridley

I shall come to the hon. Gentleman's speech. If I may, I shall develop that argument in my own way.

What is the present state of the law? The Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964 make it an offence to publish or possess for publication for gain an obscene article, one having a tendency to deprave or corrupt. I must say that this has not proved a particularly effective definition in that in few cases has it been possible to prove depravity or corruption, so I should not rest on that.

The other relevant Act is the Post Office Act, 1953, Section 11 of which makes it an offence to send not only obscene but indecent material through the mails. I expect that the House will be aware that at the Central Criminal Court earlier this week a trial concluded in which a publisher was prosecuted in connection with practices of the very kind which we are discussing. He had advertised by circular a certain book and was charged under the obscenity legislation in respect of the book and under the Post Office Act in respect of the circular. The interesting point is that the jury found that the book was not obscene but, by a majority verdict, that the circular was indecent. The circular was one of those which have caused much of the complaint which hon. Members have received. It is clear from this instance, however, that the existing law perhaps goes further than many have thought to make it possible to deal with the problem.

Having described the existing law and announced my complete sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's intentions—I think that the House is at one on this—I must look at the proposed Clause. The objections to it could to some extent be remedied by drafting, but the main objection is more one of principle. First, the Clause seeks to make it an offence to send unsolicited books, magazines or leaflets describing or illustrating sexual techniques. The nuisance is the advertising, not the book itself. It would be very hard if we were to convict people who had not done anything other than to publish serious books when the people we are trying to get at are those who send unsolicited, lurid circulars. To concentrate the effect of the Clause on the advertising rather than the publication of the book, we should seek to amend it if it were accepted. I do not want to make much of that, but there is a technical point here.

But the big objection, that mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham is the matter of principle as to how we define "sexual techniques", and why we find these circulars repulsive. The definition of "sexual techniques" is very nearly as wide as life itself. Indeed, life itself derives from them. I am advised that the definition would include encyclopaedias, where sexual techniques are described in many cases. It would include learned treatises on the reproductive life of the newt or similar animals. It would include sex education books for children and a large amount of admirable modern fiction with love interest, such as my hon. Friend referred to. I am sure that the Rape of Lucrece and even Romeo and Juliet would be described as books containing sexual techniques. But the definition which the hon. Gentleman has put forward excludes such things as prison camp atrocity stories, drug addiction stories, violence of all kinds, racial hatred and matters which some would find even more obnoxious but which are without his definition.

The truth of the matter is that to define what it is that we find obnoxious about sexual pornography has never proved possible in this country or any other. To say that one is against pornography and to define it as writings about sex, violence or anything like that inevitably includes things one would prefer not to include and leaves out things one would prefer were in. The definition of what is obnoxious in pornography has defied lawyers and draftsmen throughout history. The hon. Gentleman admitted that it had defied him in drafting the Clause. I feel that it will always continue to defy anyone who sets his hand to trying to find a satisfactory definition. Moreover, if we succeeded it would not be many months before someone found a way round it. It is the sort of problem where there will always be a way round.

The third point about the Clause is that what people find objectionable is, as the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) said, having circulars for which they have not asked pushed through their letter box. They may be to do with violence, sex, race hatred, obnoxious politics from another party, or even just rubbish. It is a question not so much of obscenity but of the invasion of privacy. That is why I believe that it would be better to tackle the matter along the lines of how we can protect the privacy of the individual from such treatment. After all, leaflets and books illustrating sexual techniques can be picked up on bookstalls and in bookshops all over the country, and no offence has been taken to this. I am certain that it is the menace of the invasion of privacy that we are really after.

A Committee of inquiry is considering the whole question under the chairmanship of Mr. Kenneth Younger. It would be discourteous to the Committee if the House legislated now, prejudging its conclusions and pre-empting the report which will shortly be presented. That is a tactical objection to accepting the Clause. Would not it be better to see how Mr. Younger proposes to deal with the truly identifiable part of what we are trying to get at, which is the invasion of privacy rather than the sending of unsolicited leaflets on sexual techniques?

The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) mentioned the Parliamentary Register. I confirm that the Register is not only made public, as it must be, but is used for a variety of official purposes. It would be impossible to restrict its use entirely to electoral purposes. I do not think that there is a way to deal with that matter. Even if we did, there are such things as telephone directories and lists of possible victims for direct-selling techniques; and if we tried to block that loophole all those ways round would be found.

Therefore, I advise the House that the Clause has an excellent and worthy intention but is probably wrongly drafted and, moreover, is probably in the wrong Bill. The Bill defines the public's right in matters of high-pressure salesmanship where unsolicited goods are sent to the recipient. It does not make it an offence to send unsolicited goods. That matter was argued in Committee, when it was decided that it would be wrong to make it an offence to send unsolicited goods. The Long Title of the Bill states that it is To make provision for the greater protection of persons receiving unsolicited goods,… whereas the Clause seeks to make a person guilty of …an offence if he sends or causes to be sent… unsolicited circulars and literature.

Whilst I am entirely at one with the hon. Gentleman's intentions, I suggest that the House would be wiser to await the publication of Mr. Younger's report and see whether he has found a remedy to what we all agree is the menace here, the invasion of privacy, because if we were not careful we might do more dam- age to innocent and educational—indeed, cultural—activities by passing the Clause now than we would do good in suppressing the evil that the whole House seeks to end.

12 noon.

Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)

Like the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel), I have never disguised the fact that I am very strongly against censorship. But I also have a great deal of sympathy with the motives and intentions behind the proposed new Clause. Every hon. Member who has spoken has said the same thing. I, too, have had complaints from constituents about the receipt through their doors of leaflets from the Julian Press. These have been most offensive to widows, spinsters, and family men who do not want their children to read such leaflets.

I think that the Minister was right to say that the most offensive part about this practice is the invasion of privacy that is involved. The people who send out these leaflets are usually in no way concerned about publishing an educational book or one which has any literary merit. They are merely concerned about using whatever hard-selling technique they can to get across their rather tatty work. The easiest and cheapest way of doing it is to push leaflets through the doors of private houses.

If I thought that the Clause would deal effectively with that menace, I should support it fully. However, for the reasons which have been advanced already, I am afraid that I do not regard this as the right Bill, nor do I think that this definition would prove effective.

Our discussion has proved one point. However much we use the words "pornographic", "obscene", and "offensive", it will never be possible to frame legislation which will satisfy everyone. What is offensive to one person is not necessarily offensive to another. It is a matter of personal taste. Some people are very easily offended. Others are offended by nothing. Even if the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles succeeded in tightening up the definition, some people would still receive leaflets which they personally and with the best of motives would regard as offensive.

I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) said about the "blurbs" advertising new books from the most impeccably respectable publishers. I cannot imagine any advertisement for an Iris Murdoch novel, for instance, which did not describe sexual techniques. Her novels are all about sexual techniques. Without the descriptions, probably there would be no Iris Murdoch novels or plays. For that matter, probably there would be no Iris Murdoch.

It occurs to me, for instance, that the free newspapers which come through the doors of private houses quite unsolicited might well describe an Iris Murdoch novel in an advertising blurb, though why we should stick on Iris Murdoch, I do not know. It might be a film, and I do not mean necessarily a sex film as such but a film which had passed the censor and been well reviewed but which contained scenes of hinted sexual techniques. I think that the House will agree that the aims of the Clause would be defeated if such innocent and useful publications were to be caught in this way.

I agree with the Minister. This is essentially a matter of the invasion of privacy and, as such, it should be dealt with by the Committee looking into these matters, which is no doubt laboriously going through the whole wide subject. It does not neatly fit into this Bill. Though the definition is probably the best that the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles could devise, I do not think that it is in any way watertight. Even if we passed it, I am sure that there would still be masses of correspondence from constituents complaining that leaflets that they had received were offensive in that they dealt with race, colour, politics, or some other contentious topic. The House would then find itself having to consider passing a new Measure.

If legislation of this sort is to be passed, it is worthy of a Government Bill, and it may be that the Younger Committee will come up with some constructive suggestions. While I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's motives and intentions and while I detest the practices of people who send out literature which they know to be offensive, I feel that the Clause is not sufficiently well drafted to deal with the matter. I am content, therefore, as the Minister suggested, to leave it to the Younger Committee.

Mr. David Steel

With the leave of the House, perhaps I might reply to some of the remarks which have been made about the Clause.

Let me say straight away that, as I indicated previously, I do not defend the definition as it stands. I accept that successive Attorneys-General and Home Secretaries have found this matter extremely difficult. I do not pretend to have found it easy or to have come up with the right solution. One other solution suggested to me by lawyers whom I consulted was to include a reference to publications which might offend persons likely to receive them. That is also open to difficulty.

The Minister referred to possible amendments that he would like to see if the House approved the Clause. I am not, therefore, standing by my definition, and I accept many of the criticisms of it that have been made. However, it is interesting that all the speeches to which we have listened this morning have supported the objective of the Clause. No one has said that he disagrees with the intention or the desire to put right the grievance felt by many people at the moment. For that reason, I ask the House to reflect further on the Clause and, at the conclusion of my few remarks, I shall suggest what we might do.

The debate is not about censorship or obscenity. I think that the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) made a valid point when he said that those who believe that the greater freedom in literature is possibly to the benefit rather than the detriment of society nevertheless have a greater responsibility to ensure that those who find the present trends offensive are protected, especially in their homes, from receiving either the literature itself or advertisements for it. That is the point at issue.

Clearly there is no intention here of obstructing the work of serious publishers or authors, whether of the past or the present, still less the Minister of Agriculture or the Secretary of State for Social Services. It is not my intention to seek to damage the freedom of publication or circulation of serious works. But the House has to come back to the fundamental question of the right of people to be protected in their homes from receiving literature which, for various reasons, they may find offensive and which, in other circumstances, other people might not find offensive.

I was interested to hear that one hon. Gentleman opposite was able to quote a letter written in November by the Home Secretary saying that the Government were seriously considering this matter. We did not hear the Minister refer to that serious consideration today, though I accept that he is not speaking from the Home Office point of view. But the one point on which I disagree with both Front Bench speakers is that this matter should be left to the Younger Committee. I do not accept that. After generations of lawyers have been unable to come up with a definition, I do not think that we can expect suddenly to find a way out of the problems by having confidence in a committee which is considering the

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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