§ Order for Second Reading read9.35 am
§ Mr. Tim Sainsbury (Hove)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I suspect that my noble Friend Lord Carr and I have a clearer recollection of the proceedings in this House on 13 November 1973 than most other right hon. and hon. Members. After Question Time, my noble Friend, who was then Home Secretary, made a statement on the declaration of a state of emergency. We then proceeded to a debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) under Standing Order No. 9. He also plays a part in this matter. The statement delayed the next business, namely, the swearing in of new Members. I was among the new Members. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who is one of the sponsors of this Bill, also took his seat at that time.
After the Standing Order No. 9 debate, we discussed the Bill that had been introduced by my noble Friend, which received an unopposed Second Reading. I refer to the Cinematograph and Indecent Displays Bill. As a result of events that were outside my control, it did not go on to the statute book. It was the first Bill to be debated after I had taken my seat and it therefore gives me particular pleasure to introduce a Bill to control indecent displays. Unfortunately, seven years and five Bills on this subject later, we have still not succeeded in putting on the statute book modern legislation on the control of indecent displays. No one could accuse us of failing for want of trying.
Since the debate on 13 November 1973, five Bills have been introduced on this subject. I am glad to say that all of them were unopposed. In 1974, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West introduced a Ten-Minute Bill. Later that year he also introduced a Private Member's Bill. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) introduced a Ten-Minute Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), now a Minister, introduced a Private Member's Bill. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney introduced a Private Member's Bill. I am glad to say that he, too, is one of the sponsors of the Bill.
This Bill is very much based on the previous Bills. I pay tribute to and give thanks to my noble Friend Lord Carr, 1166 and to all those of my hon. Friends who have tried to introduce similar legislation. I have derived great inspiration and information from studying the Bills and the reports of the proceedings that took place in this House. In 1971, Sir Gilbert Longden introduced a Private Member's Bill to control indecent displays. It was withdrawn only because the Government gave an undertaking to take action. That was nearly 10 years ago. We are still waiting for satisfactory legislation to be put on the statute book.
The other Bills to which I have referred in general covered a wider field than the Bill now before the House. Several of them sought to amend the Cinematograph Acts of 1909 and 1952, and in previous Bills clauses have been included to deal with a variety of problems, such as moving picture machines, which I believe means what used to be known as "what the butler saw", the reproduction and amplification of indecent sounds, the public advertisement of indecent matter, the sending and delivering of unsolicited articles, and, of course, the powers of arrest and seizure. Those matters are not covered by the Bill before the House today, not because I assumed that there is no need for legislation on them but, rather, because I have taken the view that, given the inevitable limitations of time to a Bill introduced by a private Member, even a private Member who has the good fortune to come top of the ballot for Private Members' Bills, it is sensible to restrict the Bill as far as possible to one issue.
In describing the purposes of the Bill, I can do no better than quote the words of my noble Friend Lord Carr when he was Home Secretary. He said thatthe object of the Bill is to remove indecent material from public view."—[Official Report, 13 November 1973; Vol. 864, c.332.]I am glad that on this occasion at least the object, title and intent of the Bill coincide and are readily understandable in plain English words. There is abundant evidence of the need for such a Bill.
I turn first to one of the most important, if rather controversial documents in this field, the Williams report—the report of the committee on obscenity and film censorship under the chairmanship of Bernard Williams. It referred to the strength of feeling about public displays that was revealed in the submissions that the committee received. In fact, I believe that the committee could be said to have made it clear that that was the subject about which there was the greatest degree of public concern.
The report of the working party on vagrancy and street offences referred to "general support" for the aims of proposals to control indecent displays. However, perhaps more importantly, there can be very few right hon. and hon. Members who have not received, as indeed I have over the years, a steady stream of correspondence and representations from their constituents seeking support for the previous legislation to control indecent displays. There can be few of us who are not rather uneasily aware that every year that goes by without the House having put such legislation on the statute book the problem seems to get not only worse but more widespread throughout the country.
It is not, I stress, only a problem of Soho or, indeed, London and the big cities. I know from representations made to me by hon. Members on both sides of the House and by the general public that displays that cause offence are becoming ever more prevalent. They have appeared in all parts of the country, and I suspect from reports that I 1167 have had that there are few towns in the kingdom that do not have cinema club posters and bookshop and sex shop window displays that people cannot avoid seeing as they walk along the pavement or go into a shop to buy cigarettes or chocolates.
It is because we have long recognised the difference between people making a conscious choice to look at sex films, magazines or displays of so-called sex aids and having such material thrust in front of them when they do not wish to see it and find it not only distasteful but in most cases extremely offensive that the Bill is most required. I believe that I can safely say that even in Soho the majority of passers-by are there not to view pornography but because they live there, work there, or are on their way to a restaurant, pub or theatre or a respectable cinema or even to school.
It is not only in Soho that we find the offence created by sex shops and cinema clubs being located alongside school playgrounds and such places and in an area where there are many residents and normal business activities. In Brighton, next door to my constituency of Hove, there are now five so-called sex shops. One is near the Middle Street first school, which takes children between the years of 5 and 8. The chairman of the PTA recently told my local newspaper, the Brighton Evening Argus, that in her experience the older boys would queue outside the sex shop. She was quoted as saying:They seem to know what the shop is and they ask their parents some embarrassing questions. We have written to the shop, the police and the councillors but there's not a lot anyone can do.That seems, I regret, at present to be only too true, although there has been legislation on the statute book about indecent displays for more than 150 years.
Indeed, one reason why the Bill is required is, in the words of the evidence of the Greater London Council to the Williams committee:There is no general statute covering advertising and display. A number of 19th century statutory provisions (which are confused, uncertain and antiquated) create offences of indecent public display and related offences in connection with advertising for general exhibition.The principal legislation is section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824—part of that section is currently receiving rather overdue scrutiny by the House in another Bill—and the Indecent Advertisements Act 1889.
The words in the GLC's evidence that legislation is "confused, uncertain and antiquated" admirably sum up the present situation. It certainly shows that the House has for a long time been concerned with the problem. However, when one recollects that if a man is convicted under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 he is held to bea rogue and a vagabondit is not altogether surprising that the authorities are sometimes perhaps reluctant to prosecute and magistrates and juries hesitant to convict on legislation that is so antiquated and difficult to understand.
Still more seriously, I suggest that the penalties provided for under the legislation, although they have been increased from the original 40 shillings, are still grossly inadequate in the light of the offence being created. The maximum fine under the Vagrancy Act is £200 and under the Indecent Advertisements Act only £50. Indeed, there may be some hon. Members who feel that any measure brought before the House that repealed all or part of no fewer than six nineteenth century Acts has a lot to 1168 commend it on those grounds alone. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) giving me his support on that point by nodding.
The House, as I have said, has recognised on six occasions the need for more effective and modern legislation with up-to-date penalties. On each occasion there was widespread and nearly unanimous acceptance of the objectives of the Bill. Such reservations as were expressed were on points of detail, matters that I suggest are appropriate to a Committee stage. One advantage of having the privilege of being first in the ballot is that one hopes that one's Bill will have adequate time in Committee to enable such matters to be given full consideration.
On each occasion that the subject has come before the House over the past eight years, we were not asked to make a judgment on what material should be allowed to be published or, indeed, on what films should be allowed to be shown. I should like to take this opportunity to stress that the Bill, like its predecessors, is not concerned with censorship. It makes no judgment, and I personally make no judgment, on whether the material the public display of which would be controlled under the Bill should be available or should be published. Equally, I emphasise that the provisions of the Bill in no way imply approval of the availability of such material, nor do I wish to imply my approval. This is a wider issue which was within the terms of reference of the Williams committee. I believe, however, that it is beyond the scope appropriate to a Private Member's Bill. I hope that in due course the Government will find an opportunity of giving attention to those matters.
I turn to the detailed provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 creates, or perhaps I should say recreates, the criminal offence of making an indecent display. I recognise that we are immediately up against the problems of the definition of indecency. This was a matter to which the Williams committee gave a great deal of thought as, indeed, have a number of other bodies and individuals. The Williams committee's definiton was that matter should be restrictedwhich, consisting of the written word, is such that its unrestricted availability is offensive to reasonable people by reason of the manner in which it portrays, deals with or relates to violence, cruelty or horror or sexual, faecal or urinary functions, or genital organs.I do not disagree with that lengthy and fairly comprehensive definition. However, neither that definition nor any other that I have seen avoids the problem that each case has to be judged on its particular circumstances. The Williams committee definition includes not only that the matteris offensive to reasonable peoplebut that it is offensive not just because it portrays, deals with or relates to something but because of the manner in which it portrays that thing.
It is, therefore, necessary on each occasion for the courts or the jury to make a judgment on the matter and to decide whether it is offensive to reasonable people. In those circumstances, it seems to me sensible to come back to the use of an English word with which we are familiar, with which juries and magistrates are familiar and which is in common use, namely, indecency. I would like to give an example. If the words "displayed in a manner" were not included, I think that I would be right in saying that the most popular postcard bought by those who visit the city of Brussels of the statue of the Mannekin Pis would constitute an indecent display. I cannot believe that this was ever intended by Williams.
1169 I therefore find myself in agreement with the report of the working party on vagrancy and street offences when it saidthat a statutory definition would be extremely difficult to draft, and would conceivably need perennial amendment. Moreover the whole basis of our proposed general offence is that a display should be considered in context and that it would be illogical and absurd to think of labelling something as 'indecent' irrespective of its surrounding circumstances. Although some commentators who sympathise with our proposals have helpfully suggested general working definitions of 'indecent', our view is that these are either unnecessarily restrictive or tautological.I agree with the view expressed by the working party. I realise, however, that this is a matter to which the Standing Committee would properly and rightly wish to give careful attention. I hope that we shall have the opportunity of giving the matter that attention. If "public display" is defined as being a display visible from a public place, this is most obviously the pavement, but it also includes any place to which the public have, or are permitted to have, access. A public place would not include one where people had to pay for admission, including admission to the display in question, or a shop or any part of a shop to which the public can gain access only by passing an adequate warning notice. More importantly, a person under 18 would not be allowed to enter while the display was in progress. Those who have studied the Williams report will recognise that these provisions are in no way incompatible with part of that report.
Clause 1(4) lists the areas excluded from the provisions of the Bill. Doubtless the Standing Committee would want to give careful consideration to the merit or otherwise of those exclusions. After careful consideration, I have thought it right to exclude television broadcasts, principally on the ground that they are already covered by existing legislation. The Independent Broadcasting Authority Act specifically puts a duty on the television companies to satisfy themselves thatso far as possible, the programmes broadcast by the Authority comply with the following requirements, that is to say—A similar responsibility is placed on the British Broadcasting Corporation. Many hon. Members may feel that there is some doubt whether those requirements are being fulfilled. Perhaps the right remedy lies in looking at those existing responsibilities rather than trying to duplicate the legislation covering the field.(a) that nothing is included in the programmes which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime
§ Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)
Does my hon. Friend think that pressure on the Committee to exclude the television companies would be lessened if the IBA and the BBC were more rigorously to apply the standards under which they are supposed to be working?
§ Mr. Sainsbury
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I have no doubt that hon. Members on both sides of the House and the television programme authorities themselves would receive fewer representations on this subject if they adhered more strictly to those words, which seem to be admirably clear.
There are other exclusions in the Bill. They include displays inside art galleries or museums and visible only from within those art galleries or museums. I am a little worried that in certain circumstances, which are unlikely but which it is possible to envisage, there could be those who disapprove perhaps more of modern art than what it 1170 displays and might over vigorously pursue their artistic prejudice. I do not regard the slight, tiny loophole that might be thought to be created by excluding art galleries and museums, or matter within them, as a real risk against the main intentions of the Bill. One is concerned principally with matter that is mass produced and widely available. That, by definition, cannot be true of what is within an art gallery or museum.
Also excluded are displays in buildings occupied bythe Crown or any public or local authority.This is a matter that the Committee would want to examine. Since drafting the Bill, it has been brought to my attention that, under that wording, a bookstall operating within a station, which would be a building occupied by a public authority, would be excluded from the provisions of the Bill. That was not intended. That is a matter that I hope we shall be able to come back to.
I have also excluded plays within the meaning of the Theatres Act 1968 and cinematograph exhibitions as defined in the Cinematograph Act 1952, principally because these matters are already covered by other statutes.
Subsection (5) defines "matter" as includinganything capable of being displayed, except that it does not include the actual human body,—that is, the live human body. Displays of the live human body would also be covered by other legislation. Subsection (6) gives requirements for the warning notice which, to be adequate, must indicate that the matter to be displayed is, or may be, indecent and be in such a place that a person is aware of it and of the information it contains.
Clause 2 gives the penalties, which will be on summary conviction, imprisonment for six months or a fine of up to £1,000, the statutory maximum at the present time, and, on conviction on indictment, imprisonment of up to two years or a fine, or both. These penalties, I believe, are appropriate to the nature of the offence, particularly bearing in mind the high profit margins that appear to be obtained by those selling or showing pornography.
I have already said that I am keeping the Bill as short and as concise as possible. There may be one area in the Bill that is too short. The clauses that have been included in previous legislation relating to the power of seizure and arrest have been omitted. I believe that the Committee will wish to be satisfied that the Bill gives adequate, but not excessive, powers to the police. It has been put to me, and I am very sympathetic to the argument, that the power of arrest in the case of those who refuse to give their name or who give a name and address which is thought to be false, and the right to seize material which may be needed in evidence, may be required.
Some may try to argue, though I hope that this will not arise, that the Bill is an unnecessary interference with the rights of the individual or that there is no need for legislation since looking at pornography is a matter for personal choice, I reject those arguments absolutely. We have to strike a balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the general public. The public are given some protection, and rightly so, from noise pollution, whether from factories, traffic or neighbours, and, indeed, from many other sorts of pollution. They are equally entitled to be protected from displays which the vast majority of people find deeply offensive to themselves and threatening to their children.
1171 I believe that the Bill, far from denying freedom, will reinforce freedom—the freedom of people to live in an environment which others have not polluted with pornographic filth. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ 10.1 am
§ Mr. Ernest Armstrong (Durham, North-West)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury), first, on his choice of subject when he was fortunate enough to come out No.1 in the ballot for Private Members' Bills, and, secondly, on the way in which he has presented the Bill this morning.
It was only after the most careful consideration that I agreed to be a sponsor of the Bill. I suppose that, in a way, we are all prisoners of our experience. The longer I serve in public life, the more I realise how much my views are still influenced and conditioned by the upbringing that I had in the West Durham village—
§ Mr. Armstrong
—where I still live and which lies within the constituency that I represent. The folk of that village gave me prejudices—there is no doubt about that—and strong convictions which I carry with me, and I do not apologise even for my prejudices.
In those days the chapel was the dominant force in a village community. Looking back, I realise that there were no moderates in a chapel. One was either on the way to Hell or on the way to Heaven. There was no middle road. In effect, I grew up in a community where "Thou shalt not" was the byword. We knew the things that we ought not to do. Some of those who still influence me were bigoted in a way—I suppose that they would be described as bigoted today, or narrow-minded—but I now realise that they were anxious to keep me on the straight and narrow path, warning me about all the things that could spoil my life. And how right they were.
It is interesting, however, that the values and standards of that community, a closely knit mining community, were not imposed by law. The policeman was a friend and a leader in the community. Our values were imposed, so to speak, by men who gave leadership to the community, without being able to make speeches. Many of them lacked formal education. The influence was their lifestyle, the way they conducted themselves at their work and in the local community. They were always available, and it was the quality of life which they displayed that set the tone.
Those days have gone. I do not think that we can go back to them. But they still influence me, and I am grateful for it. In a way, they govern my attitude to the Bill and to the subject that we are discussing. The Bill has a limited objective. No one pretends that it will cure everything and put everything right, and this accords with my general view about the power of legislation. We are talking about people, and to change attitudes is the most difficult thing to do. Passing Acts of Parliament does not change attitudes. Indeed, I have no great faith in legislation.
If I may put it in a sentence, the purpose of the Bill is to ban the blatant public display of offensive and indecent material. This is its important purpose. In The Times yesterday there was a description of developments in Soho. I noted that a sex shop was being opened there, and it was said to be the one-hundred-and-sixty-fourth "sexploitation" establishment in an area of less than 1 1172 square mile. The character of that community has changed. Moreover, as the hon. Member for Hove said, the change is not confined to Soho. It is spreading throughout the country. It is a sad commentary on our society that this is, as it were, one of the growth industries. It is sad to realise that this sort of thing is growing, with all the effects that it can have. I notice that the chairman of the Soho Society has said:We have tried to be tolerant, but it is the sexploiters who have been intolerant.We hope that the Bill will not only set a marker but will encourage those who want to improve the quality and standard of life. As I say, I have no great faith in legislation, but I believe that we have a duty and an obligation in the House. We have an obligation—I think back again to the standards maintained by the folk who influenced me—not only to remove the pitfalls and obstacles to the good life but to provide a framework that makes it easier, or less difficult, to do the right thing. We ought to provide that sort of framework.
I am against rigorous forms of censorship, and the Bill is not intended to impose censorship. As we all know, controls can be dangerous, and censorship can be dangerous. Controls can be manipulated to achieve an improper degree of direction and dictation, be it religious, political or ideological. But we have a duty to protect our young folk, in particular, and to give guidance.
As hon. Members may know, I was a schoolmaster for a long time. I could never understand those who said that we ought not to give guidelines to young people, that we ought to let them grow up and then choose for themselves. The truth is that it is too late then. I hope that this will not sound arrogant, but I believe that I know what is good for my children and grandchildren, and that I know what is good for some of our young folk, who are full of ideals and whom I want to encourage, but who need guidance and, in paricular, guidance about things that will impair and spoil their lives.
To strike the right balance is always difficult. We talk a great deal about choice. People cannot choose unless they first have not only knowledge and information but the experience of folk who know what it is to be subject to all manner of temptations. I am always anxious to avoid the generation gap. I am very conscious—indeed, if I were not my children would soon remind me—that I am always harking back. I suppose that, on coming up to my age, we are resistant to change and fearful of change. On the other hand, the young seem almost to want confrontation and to challenge everything. I think it most important therefore that we should give the proper guidance.
The truth is that the pendulum has swung too far from the values and standards that were taken for granted when I was a boy to what we call the permissive age of the 1970s and 1980s. There is no case for allowing the blatant display of indecent material in places where the general public have access without restriction or payment. We must protect particularly our young folk. We see these displays outside theatres, outside cinemas, in our public parks, on the pavements of our cities and towns, and even in newsagents' shops.
I was brought up in a newsagent's shop. We had a newsagent's business at home. When I see some of the material that is displayed now in the ordinary newsagent's shop, I know what would have happened if anyone had dared to introduce it in the days when I was growing up. I am alarmed by and shocked by the deterioration in 1173 standards and the trivialisation that has somehow been allowed to occur over the years. Young people now growing up are subjected to all these temptations, whereas when I was growing up there were helpful guidelines for young people to follow. There is no doubt that the present laws allow, in a way, unsolicited assaults on privacy. Surely we have the right to take our family down the high street without being assaulted and offended in this way.
Private activity, in which no payment or gain is involved, is a different matter. I agree with the submission of the Churches to the Home Office committee that:It is inappropriate for the law to interfere with the voluntary activities of adults unless such conduct causes harm to others.That may sound a little vague, but it is a principle that I would support. We want to achieve a position in which adults who choose to have access to this kind of material must make a conscious and deliberate decision to do so. It should not be commonly available to young and old alike, whether or not they want it.
The worth of human beings is being challenged today. Human dignity and maturity are belittled and, indeed, denied by the kind of material that some people seem to feel that the public demand. Anything that we can do to protect and improve human values and standards is worth while.
I commend the Bill to the House. I have no doubt that in Committee we shall discuss various matters and perhaps amend the Bill and, I hope, improve it. I am attracted to it because it is precise, it has a modest aim, it sets a marker, it encourages those who believe that the pendulum has swung too far, and it encourages caution and restraint on the part of some of those who seem to think that the sky is the limit in relation to the production of pornographic material.
The Bill is also an indication of the concern of people in public life and the concern of this House that life is not just about economics, balance of payments, balance sheets, and so on. It is about people, the quality of human life, people's dignity and their sacred personality. It is because I regard much of what I see now freely on display as an offence to that kind of view about humanity that I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Mrs. Peggy Fenner (Rochester and Chatham)
I am very pleased and proud to follow the right hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong), who has made a wonderful contribution to the debate. Unlike him, I was raised as a small child in a very tough milieu, the child of a broken home, in one of the poorest parts of London. It may be that in my adult life this has confirmed in me a fervent belief in family life and the importance of the family and the way in which parents try to raise their children.
Many mothers and grandmothers have said to me "How can we raise our children with an appreciation of the finer things of life, of the real virtues, when they are constantly being assaulted in this way, and this assault is made on their innocence?"
I am very pleased, therefore, to join my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) as one of the supporters of the Bill. He has referred in detail to the way in which the subject has occupied the attention of the House over many years and on a number of occasions. It has been the subject of several reports, which have often resulted in an attempt by the House to do something about it. Although 1174 I was absent from this House for a number of years, I well remember the attempt, to which he referred, to introduce legislation that was made by the Government—not on that occasion by a private Member—in 1973. I recall its sad fate because of the fall of the Government in 1974. But that attempt was the result of the efforts of a working party which had made preliminary recommendations for a modernised offence of making an indecent public display.
Attempts made in the past to modernise and improve statute law in this admittedly controversial area have all too often floundered on the so-called "tendency to deprave and corrupt" test. Very wisely, my hon. Friend has left that entire area out of his modest and concise Bill. That does not mean, as he rightly points out, that we are any less concerned about the tendency to corrupt and deprave. But, because of the difficulty of establishing a tendency to corrupt and deprave, the House seems to have been led into the vacuum of giving up its attempts to modernise the law and to clean up public display. That is why I am particularly pleased that my hon. Friend has chosen to introduce a Bill which sensibly makes a start in an area in which we all know that there is much publicly expressed concern.
My hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Durham, North-West have already referred to Soho. It has been mentioned in the print medium and on television recently. Examples have been shown of what has happened to that area, and how the environmental quality has gradually declined. Soho was noted for its wonderful mix of nationalities, restaurants, delicatessens and exciting shops. It is also, after all, a home for some wonderful people who live there. For them to see the decline of the area by the constant taking over of every empty shop in order to open yet another sex shop, with explicit public display outside, has been a matter of the gravest sadness and disappointment. But, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, we should not assume that this is happening only in Soho.
The period just after Christmas is a very appropriate time when mothers and grandmothers frequently take children and grandchildern to see a film. One has to search a little these days in order to find a suitable film for children. One has to go back into the past to films such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Mary Poppins" in order to find something that will not cause grandmothers to blush for their grandchildern to see. But, having found a suitable film, one has to walk them along the pavement, having their innocence assaulted by the display of such intellectual treasures as "Give Us Our Daily Sex", "Dracula's Virgin Lovers", "True Blue Confessions" and "Scandinavian Erotica". Curious children do not pass displays like that without asking obvious questions. Publicly displayed advertisements of that sort cause great concern to parents and are a constant assault on the innocence of our children.
My right hon. Friend rightly makes the point that he has with great care given the Bill a limited objective and has excluded television. I appreciate that. I agree with my hon. Friend that sometimes the BBC and the IBA appear to have overlooked the need to protect our children. With my grandchildren I frequently watch the children's programmes that are shown on Sundays. They are very good programmes. However, slap bang in the middle of the programmes there are trailers for totally adult, sexually explicit, lascivious—scened plays to be shown in the evening. Those are for people to watch if they wish, but 1175 they are not for my grandchildren to see in the middle of the children's programme. They will not be staying up to see those plays. The authority is confining itself to its proper role in not showing such plays until after we deem that children have gone to bed, but it shows the trailers.
The same is true of cinemas. We take our children to see a film and in the middle of the big film, or perhaps before or after the cartoon that follows it, the trailer is shown of the adult film, a film to which we would never take our children. Children, their parents and their grandparents are being unwillingly exposed, which is exactly the comment used by the Williams report at paragraph 9.8 on page 114, which states:The proposition that the public should be protected against unwilling exposure to offensive material is not of course new.My hon. Friend the Member for Hove, the right hon. Member for Durham, North-West and I have mentioned Soho. It should be made clear that the disease is evident in not only that section of the Metropolis. There was recently a march of women in Yorkshire. The women were demonstrating against publicly advertised films explicitly showing indecent violence and violent indecency. They consdered that it was insulting and of a dangerous nature, especially to women in an area in which the activities of the so-called Yorkshire Ripper had too terribly made manifestly real those posters and the message that they were conveying.
As the Williams report observes on page 114, it isunwilling exposure to offensive materialagainst which the public should be protected. However, as is said at the end of the chapter,The problem lies not with indecent displays but with displays of the indecent, and to control these, one needs to go beyond the content of the mere display itself to the character of the item being displayed.My hon. Friend has wisely stayed out of that rather difficult wilderness, although I suspect that both he and I feel that there is quite a bit to be done. I agree with the right hon. Member for Durham, North-west that perhaps the answer lies not with the law but in the way in which our society has evolved over recent years.
It may be that I am easily offended—perhaps I am rather narrow-minded, and if I am I confess it freely—but I remember being offended a few years ago by a series of advertisements. I telephoned the police in my constituency because a new firm selling jeans called itself "Bums" and advertised all over the facias of shops and in enormous letters down the sides of buses. I regarded that as somewhat offensive. I did not want to explain to my grandchildren that it is not an everyday word. I accept that it may be a good old English word for adults. I was somewhat astonished to receive the reply "It is a word that is used. It is an everyday word." I can think of a few four letter words that some people put into everyday use, but I should hesitate to agree to their being displayed on the fronts of shops and along the sides of buses.
We may be certain that there will be difficulties if an attempt is made, for example, to define "obscenity". The Williams report says that we should get rid of all such words. I understand that in law they are difficult to define. Defining obscenity has always raised the controversial test of corruption and depravity. Inevitably the definition of indecency would be challenged. However, it seems that it 1176 is not a reasonable excuse for doing nothing to tighten the law. I suspect that a few of the lawyers in the House will deploy their expertise in this difficult area of the law.
I make a plea on behalf of ordinary decent people. Years ago I should have been a little worried to talk about ordinary decent people. Again, it is a difficult definition. However, I am much encouraged by the Williams report, which includes the phrasecausing offence to reasonable people.The principal object of the law should be to prevent certain sorts of material that cause offence to reasonable people. If that can be defined, I do not ask for more.
§ Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)
Does that not throw up another word which needs to be defined? Unless one knows what a reasonable person is, the previous description is pretty inadequate.
§ Mrs. Fenner
Yes. I am only too well aware that it merely raises another issue and that lawyers will have a fine time defining "reasonable people".
I suspect that I understand ordinary decent people and what gives offence to reasonable people, even if that sounds rather arrogant. I suspect that the House is full of those who understand what gives offence to reasonable people. We need action to prevent them from being unwillingly exposed to nasty, offensive material that is degrading to the human spirit and all too often especially degrading to females of the species. More importantly, we must seek to prevent children and young people from being unwillingly exposed. It is in this climate that I support the Bill and wish it God-speed through its Committee and other stages.
§ Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) on coming first in the ballot. In considering the Bill we must ask ourselves three questions. First, is there a problem that needs to be dealt with? Secondly, is new legislation necessary to deal with the problem? Thirdly, if new legislation is necessary, is the Bill comprehensible and workable?
There seems to be general agreement that in many areas of Britain people are encountering so-called indecent material against their will, whether it be in shop windows, magazine displays, the fronts of strip clubs or on cinema hoardings. There are those who find this distasteful and offensive. It is a form of environmental pollution, and it can be a public nuisance if people do not wish to see it but cannot avoid doing so.
The effect on young people of an impressionable age is hard to assess, but it is wrong that these displays should be in places where schoolchildren see them. As the hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs. Fenner) said, Soho and many other towns and cities in other parts of the country are the scene of indecent displays that can be offensive, especially to the residents of those areas who have to see them every day of their lives.
These displays, far from decreasing, seem to be spreading. It seems that under this Government the sex industry is the only industry that is booming. It has no unemployment. In Soho 164 sexploitation establishments are destroying what was a fascinating cosmopolitan village. It appears that there is nothing that the local authorities there can do about it. I hope that the Bill will help, perhaps in only a small way, to do what the local authorities cannot do.
1177 In many of the establishments in Soho there are publicly exhibited photographs which are offensive to reasonable people. I hope that the Bill will stop the proliferation of magazines displayed in newsagents which vie with one another on the borderline of indecency, each trying to make more money and sell more than the next.
I agree with the hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham in her further criticism of the Bill. She said that indecent displays had the effect of debasing and degrading womanhood. It is usually women who serve as the commercially exploited subjects—or objects—in sexual, violent or sadistic photographs. As long as the demand for pornography exists, there will always be a tiny minority of women who are prepared to be exploited for financial gain. But it is the other women, the majority, who have voiced a loud protest against those public displays, even to the extent of taking part in recent outdoor demonstrations. They feel that such displays are offensive, not only on aesthetic grounds but in the demeaning way in which they portray or interpret the role of women.
The second question that needs to be answered is: is new legislation necessary to deal with the problem? As the hon. Member for Hove said, there is a proliferation of legislation which his Bill will repeal in whole or in part, ranging from the Vagrancy Act 1824 to the Indecent Advertisements (Amendment) Act 1970. So why is this new Bill necessary? It contains no new definition of indecency. If existing displays are not now against the law, how will they be against the new law?
If the hon. Gentleman believes that present legislation is not being adequately enforced, in what way will his Bill he more enforceable? If, on the other hand, the purpose of his Bill is to update and consolidate existing law, in what way will it have more effect than the existing law? Probably none of us can answer these questions until the Bill comes into operation, but we should bear them in mind as the Bill goes through the House.
The third question is: is this Bill comprehensible and workable? It defies two of the principal recommendations in the Williams report. One of the principal recommendations is thatThe existing variety of laws in this field—obscenity and indecency—should be scrapped and a comprehensive new statute should start afresh.Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he agrees with that recommendation. I agree that we should not regard piecemeal legislation of the type we are considering today as being the most satisfactory way of dealing with this complex subject. In 1973, the Conservative Government introduced a Bill on this issue. Does the Minister agree that a comprehensive Government Bill, with a free vote of the House, would be preferable?
The Williams report was an excellent and, in my opinion, thoroughly under-estimated and neglected report. The committee worked for two years, and considered 1,500 separate submissions of evidence. Its recommendations were unanimous, and seemed to meet with general approval. The report was published over 14 months ago. Just after it was published the Home Secretary stated that the Government should not proceed without a wide measure of public agreement. He said that he wished to hear the views of the House and the country. Yet, in 14 months, the Government have not seen fit to initiate a full debate on the Williams report. Perhaps the Minister will 1178 tell us what representations the Home Office received from the public and interested groups about the report and its recommendations.
This is the second attempt by a private Member to legislate on indecent displays since the report was published. Surely the time has come for the Government to take the initiative now that the Williams report is 14 months old. Even if the Government do not have the parliamentary time to bring in a comprehensive Bill, at least it is time they announced their conclusions on the report. The timing and content of any Private Member's Bill is obviously related to the timing and content of any related Government Bill which may be put forward. So how can the House decide to reject this Bill and await a comprehensive Government Bill if it is not told whether there will be a comprehensive Bill, and, if so, when?
The Bill also defies the second recommendation of the Williams report. As the hon. Gentleman said in introducing the Bill, the report decided that terms such as "obscene", "indecent" and "deprave and corrupt" should be abandoned as having outlived their usefulness. Not only is the word "indecent" the most significant word in the Bill, but it is not defined. It is said that there has never been a strict definition and that we should leave it to the courts. In 1965, the late Lord Chief Justice Parker described indecency assomething that offends the modesty of the average man.Lord Reid described it asanything which any ordinary decent man or woman would find shocking, disgusting or revolting.But all these words have a subjective element. What is shocking to one ordinary decent man may not be shocking to another. Indecency, like beauty, liesin the eye of the beholder.It cannot be defined.
In 1973, the Opinion Research Centre carried out a survey of 900 people over 15 years of age. They were shown three pictures—Rodin's sculpture "The Kiss", Leon Bakst's costume design for Scheherazade in 1910, and the cover of the December 1973 issue of Men Only. They were asked which they considered to be the most indecent. Thirty per cent. chose the Bakst drawing, 28 per cent.—almost the same number—chose Men Only, and 7 per cent. chose "The Kiss". So there is a range of views about the extent of indecency and what it comprises.
§ Mr. Sainsbury
As the hon. Lady rightly says, the question asked in the survey was what those who took part considered the most indecent. Perhaps that in itself was a slightly misleading question. They were not asked whether the particular items were indecent and should be banned. But, more important, will she comment on what the Williams committee said about indecency? It said thatthe indecent or obscene test has avoided the kind of criticisms, of being impractical, that we have quoted in relation to the deprave and corrupt formula.It is fairly clear from paragraph 213 on page 13 of the report that, whereas the committee had some reservations about the word "indecency", it did not have the very grave objections to it that it had to obscenity being defined as atendency to deprave and corrupt.
§ Dr. Summerskill
The fact remains that in its final recommendation the committee said that all those words should be abandoned as having outlived their usefulness, yet the hon. Gentleman has chosen to put one of them in his Bill, as the most significant word in it, without a definition.
1179 Without precision of language, courts will make inconsistent decisions, as they do now. Attitudes will differ from court to court, from area to area, and from year to year as public attitudes change. How are respectable and experienced newsagents to decide what is and what is not indecent, and, therefore, whether they are committing an offence? How are designers of book jackets and covers to decide? How are publishers to decide? This will clearly have an unintentionally inhibiting effect on responsible artists and responsible publishers.
§ Dr. Mawhinney
The hon. Lady makes a very interesting point when she asks how those people will decide. If they are not running at the very edge of indecency, they have no problem in deciding. The question of how they will decide is like that of the little boy who wants to know how close to the edge of the precipice he can go without falling over. Surely the answer to the hon. Lady's question is that if those people do not go near the edge they have no worry about deciding.
§ Dr. Summerskill
The problem is to know what is the edge of indecency. It is a matter of individual attitudes.
When cases come before the courts the accused person will need to show that his display was not indecent. How can he know how to do that when there is no clear definition of what he has to show? It is no wonder there are so few convictions. The list of a relatively few convictions under all the existing Acts is given in the Williams report. It is because of the vagueness about the whole subject that more convictions do not take place and we have the present problem, which has been described by every hon. Member who has spoken.
The report suggests that "offensive to reasonable people" would be a far more useful concept than the word "indecent". Offensive material can clearly include violent, horrific and sadistic matter as well as sexual.
§ Dr. Summerskill
The concept that I have described is clearer and broader. I ask the sponsors to note that the advantage of "offensive to reasonable people" over "indecent" is that much of the material which in law is now not held to be indecent could be found in law to be offensive to many people, if he used that phrase in his Bill. As I think the hon. Gentleman admitted, "offensive" is still a subjective matter, as is "indecent"; but "offensive to reasonable people" might deal more satisfactorily with the present problem than the word "indecent".
There appears to be general agreement about the principle of the need to deal with indecent displays. We need a Bill that is practical and workable, and an improvement on all the existing legislation. There is a great deal to be examined in Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will respond to reasonable suggestions to improve the Bill. He has chosen an extremely difficult, longstanding and intractable problem to legislate about. My criticisms are not about the Bill's objective, but about whether it will provide a real solution. It is certainly a step in the right direction.
§ Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)
I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Halifax 1180 (Dr. Summerskill), who has made some helpful comments, indicating that support for the principle of the Bill is to be found in all parts of the House.
When I had the privilege last year of introducing a similar Bill, I spoke at considerable length and—within my limitations—with some eloquence on this subject. I do not wish to detain the House by repeating everything that I said then. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] I am tempted by my hon. Friends, but I shall resist the temptation.
I was most pleased when my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) invited me to lend my support to the Bill, and I did so gladly, because of the importance of the issue that it seeks to resolve. This is not a matter of censorship; it is a matter of freedom, of the rights of the individual.
We live in a society in which, over the years, the balance of individual rights has shifted. Things are acceptable today that were not acceptable some years ago. Most right hon. and hon. Members would feel that that was a beneficial change, but when a pendulum swings there is always the possibility that it will swing too far. What has happened in the liberalisation of views is that the right of people not to have to look at things has been infringed. Over recent years we have concentrated on giving people more freedom, allowing them more leeway, accepting in the public sphere as reasonable and decent matters that were not considered reasonable and decent some years ago. Many of us think that the pendulum has gone too far.
My constituents want the right not to have to look at certain material which is displayed before their eyes and which at present they cannot avoid seeing. The purpose of the Bill is to give them that right. It is not a censorship Bill. It does not apply to all the indecent, offensive and pornographic material that is available in our society, but is not publicly displayed.
For example, the Bill does not deal with that which is found within the covers of magazines or newspapers. It does not deal with behaviour between individuals or in private gatherings which, were it to take place in public, would be deeply offensive to many people and a threat to the moral standards of our children. It deals with none of those matters. People who wish to see indecent material and those who wish to indulge in pornographic activity will still be at liberty to do so if the Bill gets on to the statute book. It has simply the narrow and restricted application to that which members of the public see in the course of their daily activities and which they cannot otherwise avoid seeing.
There will be discussions about what is indecent and what is offensive. As I indicated in my intervention in the hon. Lady's speech, I take the view that if people do not get near the edge of the precipice, if they do not want to test the law to the ultimate degree, they will have no problem. All of us would accept that vast areas of what might be on magazine covers would under no circumstances be thought to be at risk under legislation such as this.
Therefore, I speak with as much enthusiasm in support of the Bill as I did last year. I do so, however, with a more specific sense of urgency. Two weeks ago a distressed constituent came to my advice centre. She lives on the borders of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major). She told me that she had entered into a commercial transaction to sell her shop to people who she believed would open a 1181 legitimate bookshop. As she was under the impression that the people who were to purchase her dress shop did not have ready cash, she reduced the price. After the contracts were exchanged and the deal was legally completed, that southern part of my constituency now finds that it has a sex shop—a sex shop that it does not want. My constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire have sent me hundreds of representations complaining of and expressing their exasperation at this intrusion into their community. They ask what can be done, and I have to tell them that nothing can be done at the moment. My support for the Bill has been strengthened because I want to go back to my constituents—no doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire also does—to tell them that I have, in a small way, helped to provide a little protection against such an intrusion into their community.
There is nothing square or Victorian about wishing to have certain moral standards. I listened with great interest to the right hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong), because my upbringing, although it was not in a Methodist chapel, was not dissimilar. I make no secret of the fact that if we are talking about prejudices, the prejudice of my Christian faith, as well as the political realities that face the constituents whom I have the honour to represent, incline me to support the Bill.
Of course we are dealing with moral standards that form the acceptable basis of a civilised society. The Bill will help in some way—perhaps only in a small way—to reinforce those standards that are acceptable to the vast majority of people. Because of that, I give the Bill my wholehearted support.
§ Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) on getting such a splendid position in the Private Members' ballot. As one who has been similarly blessed, I know about the pressures and temptations. There are pressures to take up causes with which one has no affinity, and there are temptations to run one's own Bills, such as the annual dishonours list, which is close to the hearts of many of us but for which there is no support.
There is also a great feeling of relief when one finally decides on the subject of the Bill and can write to the hundreds of petitioners who wish to promote the cause of plumbers, and so on, thanking them for their suggestions and rejecting their good advice.
My Official Information Bill, which I am happy to see is coming up again as such Bills do, was perhaps as different from the hon. Gentleman's Bill as two Bills can be, though the hon. Gentleman presumably had much more fun researching his Bill than I did researching mine. In one way, both Bills are similar as they have been around for some time. Neither has seemed ever to be opposed by people of courage, because there is something invidious about opposing both the limitation of indecent display and freedom of information. Neither is yet on the statute book. I wish the hon. Member well. The sympathy of the Chamber may be conducive to speeding it on to the statute book, and the modesty of the Bill may provide an insufficient number of impediments to stop it getting there.
On my Bill, Ministers have warned about the dangers of open government. It is easier for Government to operate if one does not have to tell people. On this Bill, Ministers are apprehensive about tackling a large and delicate 1182 measure. I believe that it is unfair to leave it to a private Member to bring in such a Bill. Whatever the support, when it is presented Ministers can—if they want—be marvellously unhelpful in seeing that the Bill never becomes law.
So I sympathise with previous speakers who have said that this measure should be brought in by the Government, and hope that, as it was, it will at least gain the continued support and help of Government, because a Bill of this nature needs substantial official assistance in order to be strengthened.
I am in favour of the Bill; I am against most of the things which its author is against. It is a disgrace that there are streets in this country to which one cannot take a friend, a child, or even a sensitive wife without a substantial chance of embarrassment. It is a misery that one cannot take a grandson into a newsagent or tobacconist for fear that he will find the pornography before he finds the Smarties.
Therefore, I hope that the Bill will become an Act, because it is a help and any help is welcome. It is a step in the right direction. If we cannot be rid of all indecent displays, a diminution therof must be proper. I am sure that the sponsor of the Bill will have reservations similar to my objections to it. It tends not to deal with the actual problem, but aims to sweep the effects under the carpet.
The hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) said that filth was the only growth industry under this Government. Perhaps that was unfair, because it was a substantial growth industry under her Government as well. Tax avoidance is the growth industry under this Government.
It seems extraordinary, by any standard, that if one exposes oneself in public one is accused of indecent exposure, taken to court and possibly sent to gaol. However, if one leaves in an open place a picture of someone who is doing just that, there is no instant offence of which one is guilty. It is right that a Bill should be brought in to bring the law into some repute on such matters.
It is also strange that the Victorian vices of gambling, drinking and sex are—with the exception of sex—carefully controlled on a per capita basis. There is one bar for so many head of population. That is right. There is one betting shop or one casino for so many head of population, which is sane. However, there is no limit to the number of sex parlours, sex shops and offensive displays of pornography which can be thrown at the public. That ghetto development is perhaps one of the matters that most needs to be considered and eradicated.
The law must be properly and carefully administered, because in the absence of that there will be the boring euphemisms which are already beginning to become part of our language. Prostitution is no longer a problem. The problem now is that of massage parlours, model agencies or notices in tobacconists' shops which say "Beautiful chest for sale".
It is not enough to start using vague expressions when we are trying to fight the proliferation of something which the majority of right-thinking people find offensive. I share the concern of the entire House on that matter. If one believes in freedom, one of the freedoms must be the freedom to walk with one's children down any street without being acutely embarrassed by what one sees.
The Bill closely follows the wording of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. 1183 Mawhinney). However, it is short and many points of possible controversy have been removed—such as the police power to arrest a suspected offender if he either refuses to give his name and address or gives a palpably false name. I hope that we shall be told why that is.
Also missing is the police power to remove articles containing indecent matter. I was very much in favour of that power because it seemed to me that no lasting harm could be done by removing what one policeman thought was indecent material. If it later turned out to be less than indecent, it could always be given back. I am not too worried about leaving the right to decide what is decent or indecent at the disposal of a simple policeman, provided that he does not burn it or sell it but simply takes it away. I approved very much of that provision.
If the Bill becomes law, it will certainly provide more up-to-date legislation governing indecent displays in public places than now exists. What we have now is largely the Vagrancy Act 1824. I share the view of the hon. Member for Hove that, although 1824 might have been a good year, it is a very long time ago and it is unlikely that a law conceived 157 years ago would have sufficient relevance to today's life.
Certainly, under the Metropolitan Police Act, which came in 15 years later but is still 142 years old, a recent offender was fined £50 in a London magistrates' court. Although no one thought too much about it, there was great joy among the pornographers of Soho;£50 is the sort of sum that they make in a quarter of an hour. If that is all they are frightened of, this is not the disincentive which many of us believe is the whole point of taking someone to court and fining him.
There are doubts whether the Bill is sufficiently comprehensive. The clauses in the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Peterborough, relating to "What the butler saw" machines and unsolicited matter through the post, have been removed and I doubt whether the Bill is explicit enough to enable adequate enforcement or forceful enough to check the undoubted proliferation of indecent displays. As I said, at today's values, in terms of a pornographer's profitability, the penalties are derisory.
No one seems clear exactly what types of display will be caught by the Bill. Those Soho cinemas and clubs which operate an official code of practice on public displays with the licensing authority find it difficult to arrive at a compromise of opinions. I have looked at Soho, and all I can say is that if it is" code of practice" that there should be pictures of a copulating couple beside the pavement with small strips of black plastic pinned over two or three randomly selected points that is a pretty shoddy code of practice.
The Bill is intended as an interim measure to deal with the pressing and more offensive aspects of what is clearly a growing problem about which there is increasing public concern. Perhaps its very brevity is thought to give it more chance of success. If that is so, the main considerations must be whether the Bill is sufficiently tightly drafted to effect a significant improvement on the present measures and whether it leaves ambiguities which will expose such people as the small newsagent to an unjustified risk of criminal prosecution.
We should consider with care the problems of small newsagents. Many of us who represent rural constituencies know that a small newsagent is not the pornographer that 1184 his London cousin might be but an essential member of the community—often also a sub-postmaster, the dispenser of people's benefits and the guardian of the health of old people.
There is a tremendous difference between the man who speculatively buys all the filth he can see and exhibits it in order to seduce people into his shop and the newsagent who, because two or three of his customers order a particular publication, takes the proper commercial risk of ordering a couple more copies. If some of his clients buy them, he argues, perhaps others will. It must be remembered that the mark-up on these magazines is substantial. The newsagent who deals mostly in items which have a small mark-up and a small value—2p or 3p on a newspaper, 6p or 7p on a packet of cigarettes—finds that the transaction of one magazine, albeit one with a lurid picture on the front, bringing an immediate profit of 60p or 70p, is a not unattractive way of going about his proper business.
I am unhappy about the concept of having two parlours for a newsagent who wishes to sell indecent or obscene material. It is the concept which the Gaming Board had when it considered the Las Vegas idea of gambling, under which everyone is made to gamble who does not want to gamble, under which there are 150 one-armed bandits between the lift in any hotel and the reception desk, so that, to come in or get out, it is almost impossible not to be caught by some form of gaming. The Gaming Board in this country decided to separate the normal functions of a hotel and restaurant from those of gambling. There is no British casino in which that is allowed, to be confused, and no British casino allows live entertainment next to the gaming tables.
The concept that one should not enter a newsagent's shop to be confronted by indecent displays—if that is what the front pages of sex magazines are—is a proper concept, but the concept that they should be tucked away in another room does not stand investigation. If there is another room, it must be policed, because in these days of shoplifting it is not recommended to allow people to go on their own to places where there are goods. I believe that that other room, if it attracts anyone, will attract the worst possible people. It will be the site for muggings, attacks and theft.
Perhaps a much better solution would be either to ensure that publishers do not put offensive pictures on the fronts of magazines—if that threat had that effect, one would welcome it—or to have simple brown paper bags bearing the name of the magazine so that they can be stored anywhere at all.
The Minister of State, Home Office is extremely well-qualified professionally to answer my next point. It is over-optimistic to rely upon judicial and magisterial announcements to sort out the matter in individual cases simply because so few cases will reach the High Court and the Court of Appeal and thus be included in the law reports. Magistrates and circuit judges who deal with the majority of cases relating to indecency are not often reported except in the non-legal press, and then they are not very accurately reported. A body of case law and precedent is therefore not built up as it is in more serious offences. Those who officiate in proceedings will therefore not have much reported opinion and decisions upon which to base their judgments.
At the same time, those tried under the Bill, if it is passed, will be tried by jury only if they opt for trial by 1185 jury on indictment. Most of those tried under the provisions of the Bill would therefore be convicted on the opinions of individuals who have very little to guide them except their own views. I look forward to clarification of that point from the Minister, and I hope that he will throw the weight of the Government behind this well-intentioned interim Bill, because the problem with which it deals is one about which the whole country and, to a great extent, all Members of Parliament are deeply concerned.
Many of us find censorship as offensive as we find pornography. But politics is a matter of priorities, and in the first instance it is our job to make this country a safe place for those who wish to be safe from pornography to move in.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)
It may help the House if I intervene at this stage to indicate the Government's attitude to the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury).
I begin by adding my own congratulations to my hon. Friend and expressing our gratitude for his delightful, wise and temperate speech. I agree with the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) that coming top in the ballot is a little like winning the pools. Suddenly, one is very much sought after—or perhaps even more sought after in the case of my hon. Friend, who is always very much sought after—and there is a plethora of helpful, if conflicting, suggestions as to where, with whom and how one might best invest the proceeds. My hon. Friend has used his good fortune very wisely, and I am delighted that that is the unaminous view of the House today.
My hon. Friend has seized upon a matter that is the source of much public concern among quiet, decent—if I may use that word, as I may and shall quite often—and undemonstrative people. I agree very much with the right hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong) about the continuous flow of protest that we receive from our constituents, complaining about the trend in these matters.
It is also a matter in respect of which the present law is in an antiquated and confusing form. My hon. Friend adopted the language of the GLC's submission to the Williams committee in that respect. I am sure that many people will welcome the fact that he has devoted his opportunity to this subject and would be greatly disappointed if failure to win a Second Reading were to deny him the chance of having his proposals thoroughly debated and perhaps carried, not necessarily unamended, on to the statute book. There is a measure of anger, as well as anxiety, in the country at the rising flood of indecent material that is publicly displayed, and there is precious little love for those who wax fat upon satisfying and indeed stimulating the tastes and perversions for which it caters.
The Bill is the descendant—through five generations now, I think, or perhaps at five removes—of part II of the Cinematograph and Indecent Displays Bill introduced by the Conservative Government in 1973. My hon. Friend paid generous tribute to those hon. Members who have explored this legislative territory in recent years, and I was very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), who is one of that intrepid band, was here to contribute to the debate. The fact that so many hon. Members have tried in the intervening years to take up the torch itself reflects the 1186 continuing public and parliamentary concern. The Home Secretary of the day, now my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Carr, said of the 1973 Bill that its main purpose wasto deal with an objectionable public nuisance".He added that there was a general consensus thatwhatever people should be able to choose to read or see in private there ought to be more effective control over what is thrust on the public when they have no choice in the matter."—[Official Report, 13 November 1973; Vol. 864, c. 328–32.]The same can be said in 1981, and has eloquently been said on both sides of the House today, for the pornography trade has continued to grow. I am not talking just about Soho, although I see no reason why those who live and work there should, purely for that reason, be expected meekly to put up with a state of affairs that would be overwhelmingly objectionable elsewhere. Indecently offensive material is increasingly in evidence, whether in local newsagents' and street corner kiosks or outside cinemas. I therefore do not believe that there will be much dissent about the desirability of the Bill's general objective. I think that there is likely to be wide agreement that ordinary people going about their everyday business should not have to be confronted by material the sight of which they find thoroughly objectionable, and which they had no warning they were going to see.
We are discussing a very wide subject. I believe that my hon. Friend was accordingly wise to restrict the ambit of his Bill to a narrow compass. Those who, no doubt, will oppose the Bill will perhaps do so by saying that it is inconsistent with the exercise of people's ordinary right to freedom of choice. I contest that opposition can validly be expressed in that way. There is no moral right, or greater good, that can justify a licence to offend other people in this way. The right hon. Member for Durham, North-West referred to it as pollution of the environment. That is an apt description. In the Bill, therefore, we are considering a narrow manifestation of a much wider subject. I therefore make it clear that the Government support the Bill's broad objectives, expressed in the narrow ambit that my hon. Friend has wisely selected.
I must also congratulate my hon. Friend on the shrewdness and diligence with which he has approached his task. He has clearly drawn deeply upon the experience of those who have trodden this path before him. Indeed, he has acknowledged that this morning. I pay tribute especially to the Bill's balance and moderation, qualities that were reflected in my hon. Friend's remarks, and to the fashion in which it follows its underlying philosophy, namely, that those who do not want to see such material should not have to, but that, equally, this should not prevent others front seeing it, provided that proper safeguards are observed.
I draw attention, in particular, to the exemption in clause 1(3)(b) for any material displayed in a shop which excludes those under 18 and to which access can be gained only after passing an adequate notice. A provision of this kind was canvassed by the Home Office working party on vagrancy and street offences, which reported in 1976. Most of those who sympathise with the broad objectives of the Bill will conclude, nevertheless, that this is a sensible exemption, and one which is readily sustained, but I note the reservations of the hon. Member for Isle of Ely, and they seem to me to be particularly suitable for consideration in Committee.
1187 I am especially glad, too, to see the exemption provided by clause 1(4)(e) for certain cinematograph exhibitions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough is aware, this was an aspect that troubled us on the Bill that he introduced last Session. Without such an exemption, cinemas showing films which the under-18s are permitted to attend would have been at risk of prosecution under the Bill, even though the films had been approved for exhibition to the audience indicated by the certificates given to them. I do not believe that that form of double jeopardy would be logical or fair. It could even be said to be triple jeopardy, because, of course, films are also subject to the Obscene Publications Act.
I also welcome the exemption in clause 1(4)(a) for television broadcasts by the BBC and the IBA. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove spoke about that, and I am sure that it would be wrong to interfere with the broadcasting authorities' responsibility for programme content, though views are strongly held that that responsibility is perhaps not discharged uncontroversially at the moment. Certainly it would be inappropriate to do so in the context of this Bill.
I believe that these provisions evidence the admirably discriminating and balanced approach that my hon. Friend has adopted to this difficult subject. It is an approach which I would expect to attract to this measure much good will, even from those who may doubt its likely effectiveness or who differ, perhaps substantially, from my hon. Friend on one point of policy or another.
It may be argued that it is a defect in the Bill that "indecency" is not defined—the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) inclines to this view—and that this will lead to uncertainty and inconsistency in the courts. That is an important and interesting issue on which the House will have to decide. It greatly exercised the Williams committee, which concluded in its distinguished report that the concept of indecency should be dropped from modern legislation. I am not persuaded that it is a defect to retain the concept of indecency. I believe that it may be a virtue in the Bill.
The term "indecent" has been with us for many years—one might say for a century of our legislation. Although that is not in itself a sufficient reason to retain it, it is noteworthy that Parliament has never seen fit to attach a definition to it. It is a word that speaks for itself in our language. When Lord Reid addressed himself to its meaning in 1972 in a well-known case in another place, he would be no more precise than to say that it included anything that an ordinary decent man or woman would find to be shocking, disgusting and revolting.
We have to ask ourselves whether we wish to define a prohibition, in this context, more closely than that. It is a word that appears in Acts which the Bill seeks to replace. It has also been used as recently as the Protection of Children Act 1978. I believe that the courts will not often find it unduly difficult to apply to the circumstances of a given case. I am not at all certain that an attempt to define it could not raise more problems than it would solve.
§ Dr. Summerskill
If the hon. and learned Gentleman feels that it would be preferable to keep the word "indecent" in this measure and that the word is adequate to deal with the problem that we are all trying to tackle, 1188 why does the problem exist? The word is already contained in existing Acts and appears not to have been very effective in getting many convictions.
§ Mr. Mayhew
That is a question that the hon. Lady asked in her speech. I was looking forward to an opportunity to answer it. She has just asked it again, and that increases my determination to comment on it, but, if I may be allowed to do so, I shall come to that in a moment or two.
As the Williams committee noted, it is the case that there are not very many convictions. However, I believe that that has a lot to do with what has been described as the antiquated and confusing form of the legislation that litters the statute book. I am not surprised that prosecuting authorities, which in the main are at a relatively low level in the heirarchy, feel some reluctance to embark upon prosecutions which have the consequence of the courts being invited to declare accused persons rogues and vagabonds in 1981. It is not a very attractive start to a prosecution at a time when the lobby that favours licence—I do not describe it as "libertarian"—is keen to heap ridicule upon any who seek to enforce standards that are prudent and sound.
There is a lot to be said in favour of the consolidation, clarification and modernisation of the law that would result from the Bill being passed. If we were seeking, in contrast to the Bill, to formulate a Bill much wider in scope, embracing the whole area covered by the remit of the Williams committee on obscenity and film censorship, a new concept altogether might more readily prove attractive. I understand that entirely. As I have said, that committee preferred to discard the use of the term "indecent" in the arrangements that it proposed. It recommended an attack upon matter whose unrestricted availability is offensive to reasonable people.
The Bill covers a narrower compass. My hon. Friend was right to emphasise this. To a large extent, it is a consolidating measure, bringing our existing legislation up to date and into better order. My view at present is that my hon. Friend is wise to stick to the concept of indecency and not to provide a definition for it. However, it is essentially a matter for the House.
The hon. Member for Halifax argued that vendors may not always know whether it will be lawful to display a magazine by reason of the imprecise criterion of indecency. The House may perhaps wish to consider whether vendors of this type of material may not reasonably be enjoined to err on the safe side whenever they are in doubt. The hon. Lady's argument is equally applicable to the Williams committee's formula of whether the material's availability is offensive to reasonable people. The same point can just as well be made.
However that may be—and it is an issue which the House ought to debate and decide—that matter does not go to the central thrust of the Bill which is to impose greater control over the display of pornographically offensive material. Whatever may be the ultimate effectiveness of the Bill, it can be said that, as drafted, it will in a substantial way clarify by consolidating and modernising the existing law, and even on that ground alone it is to be welcomed.
One cannot conceal the force of the argument that simply because the Bill introduces little that is radically different from the present law it may not be any more 1189 effective than the present provisions, but this may underestimate the effect in the country at large, and not simply in London, of a new and comparatively comprehensible statute governing the display of indecent material in public places. We shall have to wait to see what impact the Bill has on prosecution policy once it is enacted, but I should not regard legitimate doubts about that as a cause for denying the Bill a Second Reading.
I am glad that we have been able in correspondence to be of some little assistance to my hon. Friend in the preparation of the Bill. There are one or two minor drafting points that will have to be corrected if the Bill receives a Second Reading, and there might be other matters that will have to be given further thought. One is enforcement. Previous Bills have included a provision that would have enabled a constable to seize an item which he had reasonable cause to believe constituted an indecent display. It is not clear in the Bill how such an item would be produced to the court for evidential purposes. Those are relatively minor points that can be put right in Committee.
Having expressed our congratulations to my hon. Friend and given a cordial welcome to the opportunity that his Bill provides for these proposals to be debated, I owe it to him and to the House to set out the Government's position.
The substance of the Bill has a close bearing on matters that have been examined by Professor Williams' committee. Reporting in November 1979, its recommendations were far-reaching and they would represent, if enacted, a totally new approach to the problem of how to exercise legislative control in this highly controversial matter. The committee considered the problem of indecent displays with some care. It is worth recalling its conclusions, if only as an illustration of the complexity of the problem that the Bill seeks to solve.
Paragraph 9.8 states:So far as pornographic materials are concerned, it is not usually the degree of undress or the nature of the scenes actually visible to the casual public that are very special: often, considered entirely in themselves, they need not differ greatly from much material that is accepted elsewhere. It is the fact that they are obviously associated with pornography that makes them specially offensive. Magazine covers, for instance, are usually comparatively inoffensive, compared with what is between the covers. But if legal control is in terms of indecent displays, it is the cover alone which is at issue since the contents are not on display. It seemed to us, however, that public concern was less about what people actually saw as it was about what they knew it to be. Attempts to stop indecent displays, aimed as they must be just at the intrinsic character of what is shown, are necessarily misdirected, and doomed to disappoint those who put their hopes in them. The problem lies not with indecent displays, but with displays of the indecent, and to control these, one needs to go beyond the content of the mere display itself to the character of the item being displayed.The committee concluded that the most effective way to reduce public disquiet was to banish entirely certain pictorial material from ordinary shops and allow it to be sold and displayed only at premises complying with certain conditions. That would be a much tougher approach, which would operate on the basis of what was inside as well as outside the cover.
Reverting to the extract that I have quoted from the Williams report, I think that conflicting arguments on many facets can be strongly advanced. I do not intend today to take that discussion any further. It is clear from that one illustration that were we to try to resolve those problems in the near future by any radically new legislative approach we could hope to succeed only if we 1190 were supported by a wide measure of public support and agreement. At present I have encountered a wide diversity of views on the Williams committee's recommendations. It is fair to say that the majority of responses to that report that have reached the Home Office have been opposed to them. The Williams committee considered all aspects of obscenity and indecency in publications and films, and it is clear from the report that its recommendations are interlinked. For example, greater restrictions on availability were to be balanced by fewer prohibitions on what could be sold in restricted conditions.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it clear when the report was published that we intended to examine those proposals carefully. We initiated consultations early last year with a wide range of bodies. The greater part of the substantial response that we have received has been opposed to the proposals.
§ Dr. Mawhinney
My hon. and learned Friend said that the Government could legislate on the basis of the Williams proposals only if there were a wide measure of public support for such legislation. He went on to say that the representations that had been received were in a substantial majority against the proposals. Is that majority substantial enough for the Government to legislate in terms that would be opposite to the Williams recommendations?
§ Mr. Mayhew
I am not saying that. Those with responsibility for the conduct of the Government's business in the House must take account of well-proven experience. When, on a matter of this enormous complexity, there is wide diversity of view, a Bill can soak up week after week of parliamentary time and have only an uncertain outcome. It is clear that it would be difficult to obtain a consensus. The extract that I have quoted indicates the complexity of the issues that must be resolved.
My right hon. Friend has said that the Government do not propose to introduce legislation in this Session on the matters considered by the committee. I can see no early prospect of general Government legislation on the subject. Therefore, the important conclusion follows that it cannot reasonably be claimed that the prospect of comprehensive legislation in the reasonably near future presents an argument for setting the Bill on one side. My hon. Friend's measure may be thought to perform, at the very least, a most valuable service in clarifying and modernising the existing law. At best it could have a salutary and restrictive effect on what many people see as a considerable public nuisance. In any event, it is to be seen as a step in the right direction.
The calm and responsible advocacy of my hon. Friend should readily suffice to overcome the danger that the public will think that the Bill will achieve more than it can. That is always an argument for doing nothing. If the Bill is given a Second Reading, the Government's role will be that of a friendly or even affectionate neutral. We are prepared to give my hon. Friend as much technical assistance as we can in this attempt to advance towards an objective with which most of us warmly sympathise.
§ Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn and Hatfield)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) on presenting such an important measure to the House. I am delighted to have the privilege of being a 1191 sponsor of the Bill. In the previous Session of Parliament I was a sponsor of a similar Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney). I am also delighted at the helpful and constructive approach adopted by the Government, as outlined by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State.
The Bill is intended to safeguard the public against being unwillingly exposed to indecent material. It is not a case of attempting to be killjoys or of stopping people from doing or seeing the things that they want to, but of recognising that it is wrong to inflict those matters on anyone who may find them offensive.
I recall my speech on a previous occasion in the House on indecent displays. I endeavoured to point out that I am a firm supporter of the concept of freedom, in particular that of the individual. However, I also recognise its corollary—responsibility. It is essential to recognise that there is not only freedom to, but freedom from. The interests of all must be recognised.
The Bill has particular implications for young people, who can express full judgment only with maturity. In a caring society the protection of children should be of paramount importance to us all. There is clear support for legislation to achieve that end by parents throughout the country, not only those in my constituency. We surely have a duty to reflect that concern.
We have before us what is, for the majority of citizens, excepting the rogues and vagabonds as defined in the 1824 Act, a matter of common sense. Of course there are problems and difficulties with regard to definition, implementation and getting the balance right, but there is a fundamental and growing problem, and with good will, both inside and outside the House, it can, and must, be resolved.
§ Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)
I had not intended to speak at this stage, but as I am the only Labour Member present I wish to make clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) has had to leave but will be returning. I do not intend to detain the House for long.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) for not being present when he spoke. I was on the train on my way to the House. I am a sponsor of the Bill and he knows that it has my blessing. Ordinary men and women outside the House have been asking for a considerable time why Parliament has sat on the fence so long over such moral issues.
The Bill was summed up adequately in three words printed in bold letters in the Methodist Recorder, which is an independent newspaper, although, of course, it is allied to the Methodist Church. The newspaper summed up the Bill's objectives as a "War on filth". That is an apt description.
It is a modest Bill, limited in scope, but designed to curtail some of the sex exploitation which seems to be rampant in our society. It is a modest start to a clearing of the decks. Many areas of our country are being polluted by the spread of what I call this germ. If it is not checked it could lead to a lowering of moral values and standards. Heaven knows, they have already sunk rather low in the past few years. The Bill is an important attempt to stop the slide, without impinging on freedom.
1192 I do not mean to be disrespectful to the Minister of State, but although lawyers may argue about the meaning of "indecency" we do not need a lawyer to understand what it means. My mother was a humble ordinary citizen, but if she were alive she could explain the meaning in a few simple words. Many of our forebears would turn in their graves if they knew that this germ, this canker, has been spreading throughout the length and breadth of this country. We do not have to explain what indecency means. It is before our eyes in almost every major town and city. Only a few weeks ago I had a letter from a constituent who said that she could not understand why we were not doing something about the problem. When one tries to explain the procedures of parliamentary business, people outside do not understand.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hove. His Rill is a start in the right direction. I hope that if it becomes law it will be a stepping stone to future legislation to rid this country of the germ of obscenity that seems to be creeping across our land.
Like me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong) is a Methodist. Many of our forebears who started the Labour Party—I am not bringing in controversial party points—were men and women of deep moral conviction and they fought on similar issues to those on which we are fighting today. I hope that the Bill will succeed.
§ Mrs. Sheila Faith (Belper)
It can be no coincidence that three lady Members have already been called to discuss this matter, which is so important to the maintenance of family life and moral standards in this country. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis). As so often, I agree with what he says.
I was also particularly glad that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State agreed on the desirability of the Bill and told us that the Government support it in principle. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) on choosing this subject.
I believe that the time is ripe for some check on the display of offensive material. I know that the Bill will be welcome throughout the country. I am proud of my constituents and constituency, because there is not a great deal of offensive material displayed in my area of Derbyshire. People there have the values referred to by the right hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong).
Nevertheless, I know that Derbyshire people are worried by the growth of offensive displays in shop windows and outside cinemas in our larger towns and, of course, in certain parts of London. My constituents have no sympathy for the libertarian view that there should be no hindrance placed on those who wish to buy or sell this type of material. They say, and I agree, that it is Parliament's duty to place restrictions on the reading matter and photographs displayed in public, in order to maintain a wholesome environment and, most important, in order to protect young people from inadvertently suffering psychological traumas.
I know from my own experience the difficulties of coming to a decision on whether material is obscene or indecent. Sitting as a magistrate in Newcastle upon Tyne, I had to examine, over a period of several weeks, about 400 publications that had been confiscated by the local 1193 police. On first examining the material my feeling was one of disgust and shame. It later turned to sheer boredom as I waded through magazine after magazine.
The expert defending counsel called by the distributors of the magazines asked in court why, as they had not depraved and corrupted myself and the two other local worthy citizens sitting with me; it should be assumed that others would be corrupted. But we were reluctant readers who were repelled, and not attracted, by the books and we would never have read them from choice.
Our Bench decided that some, though not all, of the periodicals were obscene. However, at the same time, the same magazines were confiscated in Middlesbrough, an area similar to Newcastle, and all were cleared by the magistrates. That was noted in the following edition of The Sunday Times which said:What is obscene in Newcastle is not obscene in MiddlesbroughI sincerely hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State is correct when he says that the word "indecent" will speak for itself and that the courts will not find the word too difficult to interpret, although we must remember that the Williams committee pointed out that such terms as "indecency", "obscenity" and: "a tendency to deprave and corrupt" have outlived their usefulness. However, if the Bill is enacted shopkeepers will then have to be more cautious.
It is wrong that the ordinary citizen should be deterred from visiting theatres and shops in those areas of our cities where indecent displays pollute the whole atmosphere. However, it is also most important to realise that this Bill will prevent young people from being exposed to indecent matter. When I, as part of my public duties, had to examine those magazines I found them shameful and offensive. I shudder to think of the effect that they could have on a young, sensitive adolescent who might come across them by accident. It would not be an underestimation to say that they could be mentally scarred for many years.
It is our duty to support the Bill that has been so ably presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove. We are all grateful to him and hope that nothing will stand in the way of this Bill becoming law.
§ Mr. Tom Benyon (Abingdon)
I shall add my mite of congratulation to the torrent that has already been offered to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury). I have been in the Chamber since the debate began. It has been an excellent and informative debate.
Before speaking in the debate, I decided to supply myself with some facts. I decided to take a walk through Soho and to find out at first hand the problem involved. It is generally accepted that Soho symbolises the manner of display that is under discussion. It is a matter of value judgment whether the displays, and some of the shows that take place behind the displays, are corrupting. It is not for me to come down on one side or the other. The displays had no corrupting effect on me. However, I imagine that we are not discussing any corrupting effect on a 38-year-old, fairly cynical politician. We are discussing the effect of such material on others who are far younger than I.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)
Two points arise about Soho. First, does my hon. Friend recognise that as a result of these displays decent citizens have been 1194 driven out of Soho and the rents have trebled? Secondly, does he realise that we are concerned not with whether such material corrupts, but with whether it is so indecent and offensive to the passing public that they do not go into that part of Soho any more? Are not they the criteria?
§ Mr. Benyon
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for those remarks. I had been about to make the same points. The displays in Soho are hideously ugly and totally humourless. There is a rash of neon lights, and plastic apparatus. Dirty old men hobble along outside the clubs. It has been said that the Bill might be a killjoy and that it might attempt to impose censorship. There is no joy whatever outside the sex shops of Soho. They are islands of loneliness and sadness. Joy is not a word that comes to mind.
The hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) spoke eloquently about the way in which words lose their meaning. Prostitutes are now called models. One of the most important words in the English language, namely, "books" has been distorted. The words "adult books" appear above all the shops. It means that those shops want to attract hung-up adolescents with severe sex problems. As has been said, such events continue uninterrupted in Soho. It appears that the authorities are unable to do anything and cannot administer the present law. Apparently the Westminster authorities look to the police, who in turn look to the Westminster authorities. Shops change hands rapidly and police time is wasted. Prosecutions are brought, but magistrates do not know what the phrase "to deprave and corrupt" means. As a result, a great deal of time and public money are wasted.
The debate about pornography has been going on for many years. Indeed, it has been going on since Lord Longford produced his controversial report in the early 1970s. The recent and excellent Williams report has been collecting dust for the past 18 months. It appears that when Government are in doubt about a highly contentious and emotive matter they throw a committee at it. When the committee reports, the report is stuck in a file. It is inevitable that the report should contain contentious recommendations and as a result nothing is done.
The present laws are practically unworkable. That is typified by a series of films that were produced by a company that runs under the onomatopoetic name of Taboo Films. In 1977, it was prosecuted in a Birmingham magistrates' court. I saw some of the films. Pornography is like an elephant: hard to describe, but unmistakable when it is seen. If my value judgment is anything to go by, Taboo Films has made hard porn films, which are probably currently running uninterrupted in Soho. In 1977 the Birmingham magistrates found that the films did not contravene the obscenity or corrupting yardsticks.
I have great sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. He is in a dilemma. He probably feels that he cannot tighten existing laws because he knows that value judgments will still have to be applied to the new law defining obscenity and will probably fail any test. He cannot relax the current laws because he may fear the headlines—"Home Secretary embraces tide of filth". Therefore, my right hon. Friend is caught on the horns of a dilemma.
I welcome the initiative taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove. The Bill is an acceptable step forward, and he is to be congratulated. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs Fenner) spoke about the 1195 corrupting influence on the family. I agree with everything that she said. I am as concerned, if not more so, about the corrupting influence of violence on television and its effect on my four children as I am about the possibility of them strolling about Soho. I am sure they could not do that. My hon. Friend said that she had had to take her children to see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". However, I understand that that film has recently been remade and is rather different from the old version.
The Bill does not seek to impose censorship, and I welcome that. I hope that I shall not be misunderstood—though I probably will—when I say that the House should guard against taking a high moral stance. I do not wish to adopt too cynical an approach, but we should be concerned not with imposing moral standards on society, but with introducing measures that will work, be seen to work and will be generally accepted by the public. That is our function. If we do not do that we shall end up with legislation that is nothing other than a hotch-potch of value judgment from each and every one of us. That would be extremely unsatisfactory.
It is a sad fact of life that pornography is with us and will not go away. It has been with us since Victorian times. It assists those who are desperately lonely and unable to make satisfactory sexual relationships. As has been said, the increased loneliness and the inability to make such relations might be an indictment of our society. The tide of pornography is becoming ever more serious.
However, people are generally tolerant. I have talked to many of my constituents, sometimes in public houses and clubs. I talked to doormen in the sex clubs in Soho the other night. The consensus is that they do not like what goes on behind club doors, but that we are a tolerant nation and they believe that we must allow people over the age of 18 to see and do what they like, within the law. However, the displays should not be gratuitously thrust at people. The freedom of the people who wish to see the displays impinges on others outside who do not wish to see them.
If we were to seek in another Bill to impose further censorship on what can be seen, the only effect would be to push up even further the price of pornography, to the considerable satisfaction of pornographers, without resolving the problems. If I were a pornographer, I should be delighted if the Government tried to pass repressive moral laws and introduce a general clampdown. It would have the same effect as prohibition. The price would go sky high. If people want such things, they will get them. However unpalatable, we must recognise that. The Bill does not attempt to impose further censorship. It is intended to stop displays from being thrust at people. Most people are delighted about that move.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) said that pornography has often been called a victimless crime. I do not agree that that is an accurate title. The victim is the environment, and most particularly the people who live in the areas affected or have to walk through them. Property values go down because of the encrustration of neon lights, nudes and plastic devices. If anyone doubts that, let me ask him how he would feel if he lived in a street where such displays were going on.
I hope that we can have an amendment to ensure that all sex shops are obliged to have an entirely blank window 1196 and above it a sign saying precisely what is going on inside, and stating also that anyone under 18 is not allowed in. We have no-go areas in our cities at present, where reasonable people do not wish to go and children go at the risk of being morally offended.
I welcome the pragmatic approach taken by my hon. Friend. I do not object if one result is that magistrates in different areas impose different value judgments. It is fair that magistrates sitting at Westminster should have standards different from magistrates in, say, Abingdon. If the measure goes through, I am sure that any shop that contravenes the law will be dealt with all the severity that the magistrates in my constituency can muster.
I congratulate my hon. Friend again and wish the Bill godspeed through the House, so that people who are morally offended by pornography do not have it thrust at them from every hoarding.
§ 12.4 pm
§ Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)
I, too, am pleased to participate in the debate, not least because I represent a division of the city of Westminster that has a substantial part of the problem represented in the provisions of the Bill. Like many others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) on his good fortune in obtaining his exemplary position in the ballot, thus enabling him to introduce the Bill, and also on his wisdom in choosing the subject.
Any legislation in this area must be directed at improving the environment. I share the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon). We are essentially discussing a matter that affects the environment, and we are not concerned with imposing a rigid set of moral values.
Our environment is polluted by magazine covers, posters, photographs and so on, which to many people are offensive and indecent. That is especially true in the West End, Soho and my constituency of Paddington. Residents are looking to the House for action. It is an imposition on personal liberty that people, and particularly children, should be forced to see such matter while going about their day-to-day business. I welcome the Bill as a positive step towards resolving the problem.
I am not a prude, and nor have I heard any prudishness in the debate. We are not here to legislate about what people may or may not see in private; that is for the individual to decide. For this House to impose a rigid moral view about pornography would not only be the height of arrogance and conceit but an affront to personal liberty.
I welcome in particular the provision in the Bill that makes so-called indecent material available, provided that there is a proper warning notice beforehand. That means that a person is free to choose. If he goes beyond the warning notice, he knows what he is letting himself in for. If anything, the Bill therefore widens the freedom of the individual.
I am not convinced by assertions that so-called pornography "depraves and corrupts", to use the words of the Obscene Publications Act 1959. The Williams committee found no conclusive evidence to support those views. Pornography is just as likely to help people to vent their frustrations as to do them any harm. Indeed, from my knowledge of criminology it may well help potential sex criminals to substitute fantasies for what might otherwise 1197 be horrifying realities. In any case, the Bill is about indecent displays and not about obscenity, which is rather more extreme.
In considering the Bill's enforceability, one problem is that there is still no definition of indecency. I know that it is milder tham obscenity, but I should welcome clarification on that point. No doubt what is considered by society to be indecent changes with the times. Who knows, those of us who are still around in the next century may look back to the 1980s as a decade of rampant promiscuity. Nevertheless, this lack of definition does not make any easier the job of the police in enforcing the law.
I have consulted the police carefully about the measures in the Bill. They are anxious that, if they are to stand a reasonable chance of enforcing this measure, the question of definition should be resolved by the House. Even a very general definition could provide some guidance to the police who are in the front line of enforcing the law. I hope that this point will be considered in Committee.
Another reservation that I have about the Bill concerns its environmental impact. In one area of my constituency there are now about a dozen sex shops and also several so-called hard porn cinemas. Even if the Bill becomes law, it will not change these establishments very much. All that will happen is that their windows will become blacked out and rather sinister looking instead of displaying, as some do now, soft pornography. This may be some improvement, but it does nothing to alleviate the distress caused in the city of Westminster when these sordid and sleazy establishments open up in residential areas. What is required is a strengthening of the planning law that will keep the sex industry out of residential areas.
It should be an offence for shops to engage in certain activities without first obtaining clearance from the local planning authority. At the moment, if a butcher's shop in a residential area changes use and becomes a hard core pornography cinema, it will often be more than two years before the local residents can close it down. This is due to several weaknesses in current planning legislation. Enforcement action cannot be taken until a contravention has occurred. So residents have to be subjected to the effects of a new sex shop or cinema in their area before they can even begin to do something about it. The planning Acts do not provide for prevention but only for cure—a very laborious and time-consuming cure at that. There is a clear need for a review of this area of the law if the local authorities are to be sufficiently effective in safeguarding the day to day environment.
§ Mr. Tom Benyon
Will my hon. Friend comment on the problems faced by the authorities in Soho and, I am sure, in his constituency when sex shops and book shops change hands quickly and it is difficult to find the eminence grise behind them and running them?
§ Mr. Wheeler
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. In a sense, I speak for the city of Westminster today. It is a theme at any meeting of residents in the city of Westminster that their local authority, the council of the city of Westminster, simply does not possess the powers to ensure that the change of use of premises is a controllable aspect of public life. One of the consequences of this lack of power is that rents are forced up because of the high profits made out of the sex industry against the normal, or low, profits made by the retail shop, food stores and so on. This means that residents in Soho and many 1198 other parts of the city of Westminster find that businesses which the community wishes to survive are driven out by the rising rents obtained from the sex industry.
This Bill deals with display; it does not deal with control. I submit that control is an environmental matter to be dealt with under the planning laws and is not a matter for the criminal law as such. Subject to these reservations, I support the Bill. It is an attempt to clean up the environment. It does not restrict personal freedom. Just as it is an infringement of personal liberty to assault a mother and child in the street with thousands of lurid photographs, it is also an infringement to restrict people from looking at whatever they wish in private. This Bill is a serious attempt to limit both those infringements.
§ Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)
I welcome the opportunity of saying a few words in the debate. I apologise to hon. Members for the fact that I have been in and out of the Chamber during the debate and have not heard all the speeches. The reason is that there has been a serious collapse in the milk industry in my constituency and a large number of people have been put out of work. This shows the difficulties of an hon. Member. While we are concerned with the economic life of our constituencies and the land, and with political problems and so on, it is right that the House should find time to deal with moral problems. I do not agree with those hon. Members who say that this House should not be concerned. I believe that individual hon. Members should be concerned. We have a right to express our views in these moral matters. In some way, I believe that hon. Members should give a lead. I hope that people will not take that unkindly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) on bringing this small but important Bill before the House. I fully support it. I hope that it passes as quickly as possible, since the need is urgent.
Although I could not agree with all that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler), I entirely agree that planning has a far bigger role to play in these matters. If we must have the sort of enterprise of which we are speaking this morning, it may well be that it could be confined to one area. If that were done, everybody would know that it was there and, if people wished to go there, that would be up to them. Again we come to the question of freedom of choice.
§ Mr. Wheeler
My hon. Friend speaks of an area to which the general public might go in the knowledge that they would there find pornography shops and the like. I must remind him that there are people who live in such an area. We must address ourselves to the questions of display and control.
§ Mr. Mills
I agree. I was only trying to be a little helpful inasmuch as I believe that planning has a far bigger role to play in these matters and we have failed in that respect in the past.
The right hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong) is not in the Chamber now, but I congratulate him on his speech. He was brought up in the old tradition, as I was. I am proud of it. Indeed, I thank God that I was brought up in that way. I believe that it remains a great advantage in life.
There is need for a tightening up in these matters. To say the least, there is evidence that the situation is getting 1199 out of hand. We are finding the problem in rural areas, too. Hon. Members representing constituencies in London or the big cities should not think that this offensive business is flourishing only in their area. We have our "little Sohos" in rural areas, and there is a general need to tighten up.
I make no apology for saying that I believe that the permissive society has gone too far. In so many ways, our nation has slipped in these matters, and Parliament would do well to give a lead in warning people of the danger of slipping too far. If we believe in a responsible society, as I do, we must recognise that it calls for care and concern and the need to bring discipline to life wherever we can. I know that it is difficult. I recognise the importance of freedom of speech, freedom of action and so on, but, for all that, we must be a responsible society. I hope that it will not be taken amiss if I quote the Good Book—Righteousness exalteth a nation.We are dealing here with a question of righteousness.
I believe in the old upside-down pyramid theory of society. At the top, the broad bulk of the pyramid, there are the people, with their democracy and their institutions. Moving down we come to the laws of the land and Parliament. But right at the bottom, at the point upon which all else stands, there are God's laws. Chip away at the bottom and the whole thing starts to collapse—democracy and all that we stand for in this place and in our nation. This occasion ought not to pass without that being said.
I have genuine concern in these matters, and I believe that the same concern is felt by people in the country generally. I have had many letters expressing concern. Parliament has a responsibility to take action, and that is why I strongly support my hon. Friend's Bill. Indecent displays, and pornography in particular, have serious effects on the community, especially on our young people. I believe this to be true far more than is generally realised. I hope that the Bill will help us to take a small step to reverse the trend.
I do not understand why it is argued by some hon. Members that we should not deal with these matters or seek to control them. Protection is given in many other spheres of life. Parliament has a role to play in protecting the young from all sorts of things. If we really believe—as I do—that pornography and the accompanying moral decay are evil and wrong, and are affecting young people, we must, in our rather faltering and difficult way, with all the pitfalls, take the matter very seriously and do something about it.
Clause 1(1) states that:If any indecent matter is publicly displayed the person making the display shall be guilty of an offence.We have to remember that there are a good many people who are, so to speak, standing behind those who are making the display in the window, or wherever it is. There are evil men who are out to make great gains. An enormous amount of money is at stake, and there is no doubt that they will resist the measure very strongly in practice. For that reason, we shall have to look at clause 1(1) carefully in Committee, and remember the evil men who are behind the front people.
In clause 5, the word "matter" apparentlydoes not include the actual human body or any part of it".I do not know the law of the land too well because I am not a legal man, but I have a strong feeling that, while the 1200 measure may be effective in regard to indecent photographs and pictures, the people concerned will try to find all sorts of ways of getting round the law, particularly where the human body is involved. We shall have to watch this aspect very carefully. I am sure that at this very moment there are people who are studying the Bill carefully and who are determined to find ways around it.
§ Mr. David Mellor (Putney)
My hon. Friend has touched on the most crucial point, which is not whether we want to control pornography but whether the Bill provides an effective way of doing it. There is no definition of indecency. We rely, therefore, on the judicial pronouncement on indecency, which make reference to indecency in such terms that it is difficult to envisage some of the displays of photographs of naked people falling within those terms, although the displays are offensive, particularly to young children. I know that my hon. Friend has looked at the Williams report. The definition of "offensive to ordinary people" that was contained in the report has not been adopted in this measure.
§ Mr. Mills
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. The Minister covered it in his speech, but it is one that we can probe carefully in Committee.
Clause 3 states that the Billdoes not extend to Northern Ireland.As an ex-Northern Ireland Minister, I express the hope that it will extend to Northern Ireland. I am a great believer in the United Kingdom and I hope that ways can be found to ensure that it is extended into Northern Ireland. I am sure that some of the Northern Ireland Members would want it to extend to Northern Ireland. I am a great believer in keeping Northern Ireland close to us, and feel that laws ought to apply equally in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
We shall undoubtedly wish to probe the Bill in Committee and have a little more explanation on various points, but it is a start in the right direction, and I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)
As one of several hon. Members who have introduced an indecent displays Bill—in my instance in March 1976—I want to give active support to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury). I congratulate him on reintroducing the measure and wish it a speedy passage on to the statute book.
I want to give a little warm chastisement to the Minister on one matter. Sympathetic and benevolent neutrality are sufficient here in the House while we secure the passage of the Bill, because there will be very little difficulty in that, but I am not sure that we want direct intervention from the Government on the decisions of the Committee. However, if hon. and learned Friend's neutrality were perchance to extend to the Bill's enactment, I should be upset.
We want to see a war on the pimps and profiteers of the public porn trade. That is of the utmost importance. One aspect was attractively dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) when he said that we should undoubtedly use the powers of the town planning laws to support the Bill. The Bill has nothing to do with porn. It is concerned purely with public nuisance and the pollution of the mind in public.
1201 The history needs to be recorded to support the view that the Government and the House must give active and powerful support on this occasion. I begin with 1972, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and myself, the then Member for Leominster, Sir Clive Bossom, and a number of other colleagues produced a pamphlet called "Pollution of the Mind". We tried to find an answer to hard porn, but failed. However, the pamphlet contained a clear recommendation on how to deal with indecent displays on the basis of such displays being an affront. I used the phrasegrossly offensive to the public at large".The word that later became the dernier cri was "indecency". There is great argument about the alternatives. I do not propose to enter into that argument now. The proper place to engage in it is in Committee.
It then became Conservative Government policy to enact a measure such as the Bill before us, and in 1973 they introduced their measure. It died because of the intervention of the general election. Sir Gilbert Longden, as he now is, and who was then the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West, introduced a Private Member's Bill in 1973. I did so in 1976, and other hon. Members have since done so. There was a later battle when my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), who is now the Minister with responsibility for the disabled, introduced a Bill, which again was strangled by an election.
It became clear that the policy contained in those measures had become the policy of both parties, and that is true of this Bill. It has, for example, strong support of hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton). All parts of the Labour Party support it. If, as I hope, the Bill is given an easy passage through the House, let us ensure that we get strict and tough enforcement following its enactment. Let us ensure that we consider the Bill carefully enough to make that possible.
There are one or two matters that have been omitted from the Bill that will need to be inserted. That can be done in Committee. Those insertions will serve to strengthen it.
The essence of the problem is that by leaving the matter alone for seven or eight years the face of Soho, to name just one area, has been completely destroyed and altered. The reason for that is the massive amount of profit that is to be made in the porn trade. It is a disgrace that a well-known dressmaker, for example, should be driven out of Soho, where she has traded for many years, because her rent has been increased threefold. That is because the barons of porn are making profits that enable them to take over almost every one of the premises in Soho.
If that continues we shall lose the essence of Soho, which is in the admirable shops, the merchandising shops, the little Italian grocers that are so good, and the ability to obtain the right food. The character is being destroyed, not because people may read porn in their homes, but because those concerned are blasting this filth in the face of the public, all over the streets. That is the essence of the matter. We are dealing not with the question of morality, but with the question of decency. Nobody should ever try to define "indecent". It cannot be done, though one or two hon. Members have asked "Cannot it be defined?" It is a yardstick that changes every year or so, according to the state of the public mind.
§ Mr. Mellor
I agree with everything that my hon. and learned Friend has said, except for his last point. How can we expect the courts to enforce this law, when we pass it, if the prosecution cannot put before the jury a definition of "indecency" against which it can measure what it is looking at? That seems to me to be an extraordinary observation.
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
The most famous gentleman in England is the reasonable man—the man on the Clapham omnibus.
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
I agree. I do not know why it is always a man. I suppose that that is how it was in the days when he was invented.
Nobody has ever defined for a jury or a judge what is or not reasonable. Members of the jury decide that. The judge tells them "You will consider whether this is reasonable. You will consider whether there is any reasonable doubt in your mind. If there is, you will acquit." Likewise, "indecency" is merely the standard of the members of the jury, or of the magistrate who has to consider the question as if he were a juror.
The only way to try to deal with the matter is the way in which I did it. It is for the House to consider whether it thinks that that is right or wrong. I did not use the word "indecent", but employed the expressionGrossly offensive to the public at large".I think that indeceny is a sound test and will stand the test of time. It would be easy for the average constable to discover people's attitudes, because they can see the material in the streets.
I shall give an example. One of the worst examples is to be found immediately outside Victoria station. What does one see when one is crossing the road, perhaps with a young daughter of 12? Once I also had with me Granny, aged about 70. They peered forward, and saw a photograph of two women engaged in the most profane act of lesbian love. Soixante-neuf and similar activities were to be seen on the face of the publication. Is it to be said that that should be allowed? It is an intolerable intrusion on the privacy of people moving around that they should be confronted with that sort of filth.
If people want to take such publications away and read them, well and good. That is not what we are dealing with. I think that we can leave the matter there. I think that "indecency" will be adequate, although perhaps the test should be "grossly offensive" or some other test. These are matters upon which the Government's guidance will be useful. They have been considered by my right hon. and learned Friends the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Attorney-General, and my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Hove, and other hon. Members. There is a dichotomy of opinion, but agreement must be achieved, and when it is we shall be able to go ahead.
I believe that the whole House has now moved in the direction taken by the Bill. We have delayed for years. We must make certain net only that we take action under the Bill, but that we get the porn traders—large numbers of them—out. It is an evironmental problem, a question of pollution of the environment. We must get my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on our side. We must see that we strengthen the covenants and get the porn traders out of their present premises. If need 1203 be, that can be done through a change in the law. That is difficult, because they are all fly-by-nights, like the owners of leases, who change so many times.
That problem must be considered, but the power of the Government and the determination of the police must be behind us to ensure that we have at least the old character of Soho and not its appalling character, which is a shame to everybody.
§ Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)
I welcome the chance to intervene in the debate. I had not intended to do so, but when I heard some of the speeches I thought that it was only right to set the record straight in one or two respects.
I support the Bill, for reasons which slightly differ from some put forward by one or two Members. Nevertheless, I share the concern that, if one walks around Soho, particularly with a foreign visitor, it is embarrassing to have to try to explain why we allow so many lurid displays on every corner and in many of the shop windows.
However, I believe that we have been getting a little sanctimonious about pornography and other related matters, particularly concerning children and teenagers. It is my view, in contrast to what other hon. Members have said, that the average teenager today knows quite a bit about pornography and sex. He has access to pornographic material and is not all that upset about it. I do not believe that teenagers are quite the sensitive, delicate souls described by hon. Members.
I do not mean that it is desirable that teenagers should have access to much pornography and spend their time looking at it. In fact, many of them become as bored as some of us would do if we had similar exposure. Even when we were at school, books were passed around and we had a bit of a laugh, but that was about all. Therefore, we should not be over-protective towards our young people. Most of them are healthy and can look after themselves. Some of the emphasis on violence is much more damaging than the emphasis on pornographic and explicitly sexual material.
The most important issue—it was mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies)—is the commercial motive underlying the sale and public display of many of the items to which we are objecting. People who undertake such commerce are described as the porn traders. The commercial motive and enormous profits made out of the sales have made Soho and other parts of the country unpleasant to walk through.
I question whether the test of a reasonable man is the right one. The average reasonable man will not be put off or much disgusted by such material. However, a minority of people in our society are perhaps more vulnerable to it. We should perhaps not consider the test of a reasonable man, but should be most concerned with the test of the more vulnerable minority.
The real benefit of the Bill is its proposal that it would be desirable to prevent the mass public display of pornographic items. My reasons for supporting that are simple. Most of the displays concern women. It is degrading to women that their bodies should be displayed in a public manner, and that they should be treated as sex objects. These mass displays affect our values and, in an insidious way, our perceptions. I fully understand why the 1204 women's movement, in particular, has been offended by some of the displays in Soho. For that reason, if for no other, I shall vote for the Bill.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
There is a convention that if an hon. Member has been prevented from attending the whole of a debate it behoves him, for moral reasons, to be brief in declaring his views on the Bill. I shall endeavour to do that in accordance with the recognised practice. There is nothing more irritating than an hon. Member who comes in to the debate late, even if he is delayed for good reasons—as I have been—and begins to pontificate at great length on a Bill which has been seriously examined, as this one has, not least in the Minister's speech. For example, I understand that my hon. and learned Friend dealt at length with the definition of indecency, which is a major problem.
I therefore wish to begin with a strong and sincere general expression of support for the Bill. In doing so, I think that I echo the tone and atmosphere of this debate. Although I have not heard all the previous speeches, I guess that no serious strong voice has been raised against the Bill's objectives. That in itself is an echo of a substantial amount of public opinion.
As politicians, we all quote public opinion on behalf of our own arguments. That is a recognised and repeated feature of political life, but I am sincerely convinced that that is the case in this instance. It is only perhaps when legislation is in prospect that we begin to get correspondence. That is entirely understandable, since people are then thinking about it because they have read in the newspapers that a Bill is proposed.
There is, however, a constant preoccupation with and anxiety to many people about the growth of pornography and pornographic displays. I echo particularly the words of the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs), who referred to the oppressive effect on women of this commercial development, mostly in the inner cities but elsewhere as well. I join those in the campaign for women's rights, in the most general sense, who wish to stop the exploitation of their bodies, or at least to diminish it as tangibly as we can by intelligent legislation.
But there are other good reasons for supporting the Bill. One is the previous legislation which has been attempted. Parliament has developed a collective feeling of substantial frustration on this matter since the original attempts were made. Therefore, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury)—as well as feeling great envy, of course—not only on his good fortune in doing the equivalent of winning the treble chance in the House of Commons by coming top in the ballot for Private Members' Bills but also on deciding to choose this subject, thereby doing a great public service. My hon. Friend must have added to his practical problems of dealing with correspondence. He must have been inundated with letters and telephone calls.
My hon. Friend and his fellow sponsors, representing all quarters of the House and particularly, I am glad to say, those constituencies affected by the development of pornography, are promoting an intelligently constructed Bill. That is the essential problem for the House with legislation such as this. That is why it is better, I believe, if it is channelled through the initiative of a Private Member's Bill.
1205 It is impossible to achieve the typical ideal of a final and convincing definition of indecency or of indecent display. Much of that, I hope, can be ironed out in Committee, but I do not have the total confidence—it would be absurd to claim it—that even there we shall reach the Nirvana of a perfect definition.
Therefore, the House must face the prospect, although the Bill is well constructed, of ending up with less than perfect legislation—in an age in which we have got used to creating not just too much legislation but too much badly drafted legislation, a problem which generally worries Parliament. But that gamble is worth taking in this case.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills), I shall now run the risk of sounding absurdly old-fashioned and reactionary. I echo the indignation about the growth of the business of pornography. It is wicked—that is the only word—for people to seek to make large profits and personal fortunes at the expense of public taste and decency, also representing a threat to children and to unstable people, and to be allowed by the public authorities to do so too easily. I do not think that we can ever in our society aim at prohibiting it or stopping it altogether. But we can certainly register, through both Houses of Parliament, the strong disapprobation of the body politic as a whole for this kind of trade and commerce.
I echo the pleas that have been made today, although I may sound ridiculously naive in saying this, calling upon people involved in what I regard as this disgraceful business to think again before deciding to practise the arts of private enterprise in this sector. Could they not consider going in for something in which they, too, could be proud of their activities and interests and their achievements in business, be they foreigners or British citizens, and go into a worthwhile sphere of activity instead of making supernormal profits from this type of business? We know, however, that at least in the earlier stages of the development of these units and outlets, profits are supernormal. It is therefore not easy for such a plea to go beyond the naive and exhortatory and achieve real practical effects.
I feel great sympathy for colleagues who represent inner city areas which have to suffer the worst of this. I am also glad to support the Bill because, as other hon. Members have pointed out, these activities are spreading. London boroughs now see the development of this type of business, although we have the good fortune of having perhaps a better chance to stop it at an earlier stage or at least massively to discourage it through proper legislation.
I hope that in Committee my hon. Friend and his colleagues will examine closely what I would call facade control. A considerable allusion and comparison may be made to and with betting shops and the legislation governing their external construction and design. Whilst this merely pushes thing into the background, and may therefore be somewhat cynical in its effect or appearance, I believe that it would be very helpful to consider it as a possible way of removing these displays from the public gaze, or at least diminishing them, and therefore, particularly, protecting children.
I believe also that there is a problem in clause 1(5). I hope that that, too, will be considered carefully in Committee.
In conclusion, I reiterate my general support for this measure and congratulate my hon. Friend on having 1206 constructed most carefully and meticulously a Bill which I believe will be of great benefit to our society and to the maintenance of standards of decency. It will provide an unequivocal message from us—at this stage only on Second Reading, but later in Committee and the remaining stages, because I hope and believe that the Bill will have a very good passage through the House—that the House of Commons disapproves of this type of activity and will, with the police authorities, the courts and othérs, do all that we humanly can within our practical compass seriously to diminish this trade in pornographic display. It will make absolutely clear to all those concerned that in the future this House will not be complacent but will follow events and see what happens in our society over the next few years.
§ Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)
My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) has asked me to wind up the debate. There have been 16 contributions so far, and I am sure that those who have spoken will appreciate that in a brief reply to the debate I cannot deal with every point that has been made. My hon. Friend and I have, however, taken careful note of those comments. Some of them can be dealt within Committee, and others I should like briefly to mention now.
First, I remind the House that the Williams report was the work of a group chaired by my distinguished constituent, Professor Bernard Williams. The report contained a number of controversial proposals and attitudes, but it emphasised that one of the areas upon which it received the strongest representations was the matter of display.
As many hon. Members have rightly emphasised, the Bill is not about publication; it is about display. I was very struck, when I gave evidence to the Williams committee, by the evidence given on the same occasion by Lord Halsbury. He made a point which I ought to have thought of, but he expressed it with such beauty and power that it made a tremendous impression upon me. He said that there really is such a thing as the age of innocence, and that it is important, indeed vital, that that precious age in a child's life should, as far as possible, be protected by the law of the land. This modest Bill is an attempt to respond to exactly that kind of emotion so well expressed by Lord Halsbury.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs. Fenner), my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) and others dealt in their speeches and interventions with the problem of television. It is the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Hove and myself that this rather goes beyond the scope of our Bill, because there are other enactments to cover it. But I take the point, which was made very strongly, and I think that I can speak for my hon. Friend when I say that we will look again at this aspect of television, because we all sympathise with what my hon. Friends were trying to say. The fact that there is authority and power at the moment which may not be being enforced brings it into the scope of the Bill. However, I should prefer to discuss it with my hon. Friend the Member for Hove and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State before making any definite statement about it.
As the presence of the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) and my hon. Friends the Members for 1207 Rochester and Chatham and for Belper (Mrs. Faith) emphasises, we must bear in mind the enormous importance of the women's movements in the development of this subject over the past few years, and especially the Bill.
The hon. Member for Halifax introduced an extremely important and difficult aspect—it was mentioned also by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud)—concerning the position of newsagents, especially small rural newsagents, if the Bill goes through in its present form. This is a good point and one which my hon. Friend the Member for Hove and I should like to consider carefully before the Bill reaches its Committee stage.
The hon. Member for Halifax also re-emphasised that the penalties provision, clause 2, is rather inadequate. However, clause 2(1)(b) provides:on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine or both.The fine, therefore, is unlimited, as opposed to the one on summary conviction in clause 2(1)(a).
I shall not go further into the definition of "indecency". It was covered with great sensitivity and at some length by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State. It is obviously a subject that has caused the sponsors of the Bill considerable concern. I am not a lawyer, but I am bound to say that I do not share the apprehensions expressed by some hon. Members. In my view, the Minister is right about this, and I believe in the presence of the reasonable person.
I am also not all that worried about inconsistencies between the reactions of magistrates in one area and another. That is perfectly natural, and I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Belper, herself being a magistrate, made the point extremely forcefully.
As for the the aspect of sex shops, which I think lies outside the scope of the Bill, except as regards display, I ought to draw attention to a problem that has been mentioned elsewhere. To ordinary, reasonable people it appears extraordinary that in order to open a fish-and-chip shop, for example, it is necessary to go through a series of planning permissions and approvals, whereas if someone changes a retail shop into a sex shop there is literally nothing that the local authority or the residents can do about it. Although it goes beyond the scope of the Bill, I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will bear that in mind. It is not just a question of planning. It is an absurdity in the present arrangements.
I have listened with great interest to all the speeches. Going back to one of the earliest, I was very struck by the remarks of the right hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong), who talked not only about his childhood, but about the climate in which most people wish to live and wish their children to live in our society.
Many hon. Members have rightly made the point that we cannot legislate for morals. However, many of us feel, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) made clear in describing his experience over the past seven years, that Parliament has permitted a situation to develop in which there is real environmental pollution all the time. We have failed to provide the reasonable protection, particularly for children—for the age of innocence—that the public are entitled to expect of us.
1208 My hon. Friend the Member for Hove and I fully accept that the Bill can be criticised and amended. The hon. Member for Isle of Ely called it a well-intentioned, interim Bill. That is a good description of it. Perhaps it is only an interim Bill, and it certainly has its imperfections, but I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading on principle.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hove would like me to express his gratitude for the kind words that have been said about him by every hon. Member who has spoken. We have had an extremely good and interesting, and sometimes moving, debate. I hope that in that mood the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ Mr. David Mellor (Putney)
I apologise for intervening at this late stage when I have not been present for the whole of the debate. Perhaps I may make two points in mitigation. First, the debate is being concluded at a time well before the normal rising of the House and all the other hon. Members who wish to speak have done so. Secondly, I took part in the debate in December 1979 on the Bill sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), whom I am glad to see in the Chamber taking a continuing interest in the matter. I took a considerable interest in that Bill and retain an interest in the subject.
I accept the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) that it behoves those of us who speak at the end of the debate to be brief. I intend to be brief, but I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) on introducing the Bill. He had the good fortune to come first in the ballot, and he has chosen for his Bill a subject which causes enormous concern throughout the country, but particularly in inner London. I speak as one who represents an inner London constituency.
It is gratifying that no hon. Member has sought to object to the Bill in principle. I wish it a fair wind, but I am bound to put on record, as I did in the December 1979 debate, my concern about whether the Bill will effectively control what all those who have spoken in this debate and in the 1979 debate want to control.
The tragedy that has bedevilled this whole area of law is that laws have existed for generations but have fallen into desuetude mainly because convictions cannot be guaranteed by the police. It behoves us all to think carefully about that.
I am concerned about a matter that I hope will be considered in detail in Committee, namely, whether "indecency" is the right word to cover what we seek to prohibit. The problem is that "indecency" is not defined. That would not necessarily be a problem if there were workable judicial definitions that could be considered by magistrates or put to a jury by a judge and which covered the precise evils that we are seeking to prevent. However, in the absence of a statutory definition the vacuum is filled by judicial pronouncements, some of which, despite emanating from the highest court in the land, the House of Lords, have an antiquity about them that does not make them particularly compelling when becoming the material against which a jury has to judge what is before it.
To demonstrate what I mean, let me quote the leading definition of obscenity, which fell from the lips of Lord Reid, one of the most distinguished judges of this century. He said: 1209Indecency is not confined to sexual indecency. Indeed, it is difficult to find any limit short of saying that it includes anything that an ordinary decent man or woman would find to be shocking, disgusting and revolting.The words "shocking, disgusting and revolting" are attached to indecency by reason of the link provided by one of the most distinguished lawyers of this century and they are the cause of the problem to which I wish to draw attention.
In inner London almost every newsagent feels constrained to sell soft porn magazines, although children and others have access to such shops. Is it right to say that a cover of a magazine that simply shows a naked body is shocking, disgusting and revolting? Is a naked body of itself shocking, disgusting and revolting? I should have thought that there was doubt about that.
§ Mr. Mellor
We should probably not be drawn into speculation on that now. A child aged 10 may go to buy a comic and may be confronted with rack upon rack of such magazines. Our constituents are concerned about that. That is why the term "indecency" falls short of our requirements. It is sad that a number of those with whom I would closely associate myself have chosen to make four-square attacks—not in this debate but elsewhere—on the Williams report, because in some respects it falls short of what they want.
It would be foolish to overlook the careful analysis that that report made of the legal use of the words "obscenity" and "indecency". Williams considered indecency to be a little better than obscenity as a useful definition. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove places some reliance on that. The word "obscenity" and its definition ofa tendency to deprave and corrupthas become useless in our courts. The police are afraid to bring prosecutions. Merely to say that "indecency" is better than "obscenity" is not, in itself, a commendation. It is like saying that Mussolini was on the whole slightly better than Hitler.
We need a workable definition that everyone can understand. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) said that indecency was a matter of what the reasonable man considered it to be. Tragically, if Lord Reid's definition is accepted—which it is almost bound to be—it will not be.
What is wrong with using the word "offensive" with the definition contained in the Williams report? The report states that material that is offensive to reasonable people should be prohibited. What could be simpler or more effective? If last year's Miss World appeared nude on the cover of a magazine in newsagents throughout London, one would not have to decide whether it was shocking, disgusting and revolting. One would have to say only that, in the context in which it was displayed, it was offensive to reasonable people. It would be offensive because it should not be displayed in a corner shop. That is the mischief.
I have not spoken at interminable length, but I felt obliged to make this contribution.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).