HC Deb 10 July 1981 vol 8 cc732-7

Lords amendment: No. 3, in page 4, line 10, leave out imprisonment for a term not exceeding 60 days or";

12 noon

Mr. Sainsbury

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 4 to 6.

Mr. Sainsbury

On Report there was an interesting and important debate on the penalties that should be available on summary conviction before a magistrates' court. The House agreed that although it was important to retain the power of imprisonment for the most serious offences—one obviously has in mind the repeating offender—it was logical to expect that such offences would go for trial, or at least for sentence, to a Crown court.

Mr. Delwyn Williams

Has my hon. Friend considered the possibility of a continuing offence provision, such as a £500 a day fine? Would that not have fitted the Bill better?

Mr. Sainsbury

My hon. Friend may have studied our Committee proceedings but have overlooked the fact that that was carefully considered. However the Committee unanimously agreed that that would not be the most helpful way of tackling the problem. However, if someone keeps an indecent display on display, he could be charged separately and continuously for keeping that indecent display on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The charges could be made collectively and the fines could be levied for each of the offences.

It was felt sensible to delete the power of imprisonment—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. Dunn) agreed with this—when offences are brought before magistrates' courts for summary conviction. On Report, we deleted the power of imprisonment for England and Wales. I regret that not only am I not a lawyer but that my ignorance of the niceties and details of the law increases when we go north of the border to Scotland. We failed to remove the same powers in respect of sheriff and district courts in Scotland.

The amendments, which I commend to the House, bring the penalties in Scotland into line with those in England and Wales. Therefore, I hope that the House will see fit to accept them. If they are accepted the Bill's passage will have been completed. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), the Minister for Social Security, in his place. He played a considerable part, on another occasion, in trying to get such legislation on the statute book. On no fewer than eight occasions in the past nine years the House has approved—without opposition or Division—a Bill's introduction or its Second or Third Reading when it has had the objective of making a public display a criminal offence.

The House and the public have waited a long time to see this legislation on the statute book. I hope that it will shortly be placed there firmly. I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Minister and his staff for the considerable assistance that they have provided. I also thank those hon. Members, in all parts of the House, who have spoken and worked in support of the legislation. I hope that I will not be out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I include you in my thanks as you were a sponsor of the Bill before you assumed your present distinguished responsibilities.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I cannot possibly rule that out of order.

Mr. Sainsbury

This is a limited, but valuable, measure which gives better protection to the public. We are all entitled to better protection from the offence caused by indecent displays.

Mr. James A. Dunn

I join the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) in his appreciation of the work done by his predecessors. I share his acceptance of the amendments and support what he said about them. If the amendments were not carried there would be a contradiction in the legislation. Contradictions are not helpful and they would bring the Bill into disrepute. We do not wish that to happen.

I not only support the amendments but express my appreciation to the Bill's sponsor for the care that he has exercised in all its stages. He has given time to every representation made to him and has shown great courtesy to all those who have helped or could have been asked to help in these proceedings. He will have achieved a valuable step. If the Bill is enacted in the immediate future it might have some impact on some of the discontent, stimulation and activities that have appalled us recently. The appalling confrontations that we have witnessed might be reduced because people would not be stimulated by the type of activities that the Bill seeks to cover. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hove on the Bill.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister referred to the value of debates such as this. Our debate on Report about penalties was one of the most important. Although we were debating one Bill, an issue of principle arose about the management of prisons and sentencing policy. Those who raised the subject did so well, and they had a considerable impact on the Bill's sponsors.

Within the purviews of the Bill and the problem of penalties and deterrents lies a wider issue that the House has rightly given considerable attention to. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) was equally right to respond to that feeling and to ensure that although the Bill contains substantial penalties and deterrents, we have got the balance right. The noble Lords are to be thanked for the amendments that they have proposed. They have demonstrated, yet again, the value of a second Chamber. I refer in particular to the devoted work of Lord Nugent. Throughout the Bill's passage he has been a tower of strength and encouragement. I vividly remember giving evidence with him and with Lord Halsbury to the Williams committee. I raised the issue of indecent displays and was strongly supported by those two Lords. It is appropriate that, as we come to the end of the Bill's proceedings, we should have a brief debate about penalties and deterrents.

So many nice things have been said about my hon. Friend the Member for Hove that I am almost tempted to break the mould and denounce him. But, as a co-sponsor of the Bill, I would not dream of doing that and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as a former co-sponsor, would not permit me to do so.

Everything that has been said about my hon. Friend is accurate. It is wonderful that a Back Bencher can introduce and carry through a piece of legislation which is wholly beneficial and greatly to the value of the public. Perhaps such a law should have been passed some time ago, but, as a result of my hon. Friend's perseverance and hard work and the sympathy, understanding and co-operation shown by the hon. Members for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) and Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. Dunn) and the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin), the measure has eventually reached the statute book.

The Bill is a modest but important step forward. it represents a turning point in the attitude of Parliament and the public to something which has developed to the point where it has become intolerable to decent people. After this week, of all weeks, when we have seen so much unhappiness and difficulty in our cities, it may remind us that some of the glib views of the so-called permissive society, which was raised to be called the civilised society, have had results that we can all see.

The Bill represents an attempt by Parliament to make felt its view that matters have gone too far in this area and that we wish not to impose censorship, but to ensure that display and exploitation shall no longer continue.

Mr. Rees-Davies

It is noticeable not only that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are a former sponsor of the Bill, but that sitting on the Government Front Bench waiting to deal with the next Bill to come before the House is my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), who is now the Minister for Social Security and who piloted through a similar measure until it fell with a general election. My hon. Friend gave immensely careful consideration to that Bill.

Indecent displays and obscene publications Bills on similar lines have been introduced on a number of occasions. Just over nine years ago the Society of Conservative Lawyers considered the matter and concluded that such legislation should be introduced. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I served on that Committee. For almost a decade, many hon. Members on both sides of the House have been trying, with the acceptance of the House, to get such a measure on the statute book.

Two Bills fell because of general elections. One was mine and the other was promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey. With admirable diplomacy and expertise, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) has succeeded, but the experience of the past nine years shows how desperately difficult it is for private Members' Bills to get through the House. I hope that next year we shall make it a little easier and simplify the procedures.

I shall not take long, because I am interested in seeing that the next Bill to come before the House also gets on to the statute book.

Sir Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

And the next one.

Mr. Lawrence

And the one after that.

Mr. Rees-Davies

There is still much to be done. I support the Lords amendment. We should have noticed the need for it earlier. I believe that there should be provision for only a fine in the magistrates' court. It can be £1,000, though that could be negligible in certain circumstances. Therefore, I make a plea that the Home Office and the Director of Public Prosecutions should bear in mind that in the case of serious infringements, usually on a second occasion, traders who deliberately flout the law and expose filthy literature, cassettes and the rest for sale should be indicted, because on indictment there is provision for imprisonment and a substantial fine.

The best way to deal with the matter is to hit the pornographers hard in the pocket. That view was expressed clearly in Committee and elsewhere. I support the Bill and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove on having the good sense to choose this measure and on having piloted it through Parliament.

12.15 pm
Mr. Lawrence

As I wish to keep within the rules of procedure, I begin by saying that I support the welcome of my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) to the Lords amendments. There are enough differences between the Scots and the other British without our compounding them, when we want to continue to forge this great nation into one. To have a difference between the law of Scotland and the law of England and Wales, as would have been occasioned if we had provided for imprisonment here and not there, would have been unacceptable.

As everyone is welcoming the Bill, I take the liberty of offering yet one more word of welcome. As we are talking ad hominem as well as ad rem, I shall say that it was clever enough of my hon. Friend the Member for Hove to have won the ballot. It was courageous enough of him to have chosen this subject, which had proved to be a minefield for so many worthy predecessors. But the way in which he has, with the skill of a Pelé, weaved between the obstacles, feinted, sold dummies, cajoled, persuaded and charmed—especially those of us who are lawyers, who can always see an objection to anything—to get the Bill on to the statute book, is greatly admired by all of us. That applies especially to myself as a sponsor of the Bill because I was born and bred in the connurbation which my hon. Friend so graciously and successfully represents. His constituents must be proud of him.

The Bill is gradualistic in the extreme. It is a blow struck for the doctrine of gradualism, which is not a doctrine that I normally support or adhere to. There are other parts of the law where it is in my view little short of disastrous for us to be so gradualistic. I hope that we shall not say in this place, as I had a feeling that the Government were saying when we debated obscenity last time, that this is a substantial step forward and that we need not be too concerned about taking the other wider steps. For some reason we are terrified to legislate on obscenity, to try to define it and to deal more rigorously with some of the extraordinary perversions of decency that appear on our streets, in the shops, the cinemas and the theatres. I do not wish it to be thought that those of us who support the Bill for the small step towards decency that it takes would want it to be the last step taken, in this or any other Parliament, to sweep the cancer of pornography and distaste out of the public purview.

I welcome the Bill, I congratulate my hon. Friend and encourage the House to take further steps in this direction.

Mr. Mayhew

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) said, the effect of the amendments is to correct an anomaly concerning the maximum penalties on summary conviction in Scotland. The anomaly arose on Report when the amendments tabled by the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin) were accepted. Those amendments removed the power of imprisonment on summary conviction, but only in England and Wales. To rectify the distinction which thereupon resulted, the amendments were tabled on behalf of the Government in Committee in another place. By removing the power of imprisonment on summary conviction in Scotland the amendments ensure that the Bill will apply evenhandedly throughout Great Britain. I warmly support my hon. Friend in advising the House to accept them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove for what he said about the help which my officials have been able to give him in the drafting and conduct of the Bill. His remarks will be gratefully received by my officials.

We have been glad to offer assistance because there is little time for Government Departments to introduce many measures that they would like. There is great pressure upon legislative time. Therefore, when a Private Member has the good luck and the discrimination demonstrated by my hon. Friend to choose something as important as this, we are anxious to give what help we can.

I felt increasingly inadequate during the final speeches. I seem to be the only Member who has never tried to get such a Bill through. I suppose that it was therefore all the more fitting that I should be obliged throughout the Committee stage to give what help I could. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It is encouraging that the Bill was supported at every stage, virtually unanimously. On Second Reading, no speech was made against it and no vote was cast against it. Throughout the Standing Committee the contributions from all quarters were unfailingly constructive. That demonstrates in itself the recognition in the House of the great body of opinion from our constituents who have wanted the tide to turn. That is the achievement with which my hon. Friend the Member for Hove will always be associated. He has persuaded Parliament to turn the tide.

I believe that our constituents will be saying "Thank Heavens Parliament has listened and done something at last". That is a great achievement. It is open to few of us to do something as significant as that off our own bat. I offer my warmest congratulations and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 4 to 6 agreed to.

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