HC Deb 26 June 1981 vol 7 cc491-550

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this house do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gummer.]

9.36 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

The Government welcome this opportunity for a debate on the Williams report. The development of the law relating to obscenity and indecency in publications, displays and in the cinema and the theatre is something to which individual hon. Members have in the past made substantial contributions. I believe that this is very appropriate. Governments have no monopoly of wisdom in matters such as these which touch closely on individual and personal convictions that are often deeply held. It is in recognition of this that the Government have encouraged wide debate already on the committee's proposals, and we shall listen today with great interest to the views expressed in the debate.

The Government believe the Williams report to be an extremely valuable examination of a complex and controversial subject that bristles with difficulties at every turn—not only legal difficulties, but difficulties of a philosophical, moral, social and practical nature. Whatever views may be held as to the merits of the committee's recommendations—and our consultations already show these to be multifarious—everyone, I think must acknowledge that the quality of the report attracts great admiration, as one would expect from a committee comprised of such distinguished people and chaired by Professor Bernard Williams. We express again our thanks and appreciation to Professor Williams and to his colleagues.

Almost all of us who seek to address ourselves to these formidable themes recognise at once the need to reconcile the demands of two conflicting principles. The first is the principle that the citizen ought to be protected, according to his circumstances, as resolutely from assault by obscenity as from assault by physical violence. The second is that in matters of literature, art and entertainment the State ought not to make the citizen's choices for him, but that, on the contrary, both his freedom of choice and his freedom of expression should be guaranteed.

For a few—we may think of them as the fortunate few—the resolution of these conflicts is usually a matter of great certainty and no difficulty. The choice for them appears to be simply between God and Mammon unless on the other side, it is simply a choice between liberty and tyranny. We may envy them their fervent and untroubled conviction. But the rest of us, observing the equal passion with which they vilify one another, may perhaps be forgiven some uncertainty as we try to determine where precisely we should take position in the uncomfortable ground between them.

Most—though by no means all—of us would agree that pornography is a social evil. Most of us believe that it is grounded in a debased distortion and exploitation of sexuality which encourages especially a degrading view of women. That is why most of us believe it to be wrongful and find it in varying degree offensive. But some pornography is especially repugnant. One may take as an example some of the films which the Williams committee saw—appearing to have no purpose other than to indulge a taste for torture and sadistic violence of the most horrifying kinds. I shall return to those later. But at what point in the spectrum of material, ranging from the mildly erotic to the grossly sadistic, should the criminal law intervene? And how should it intervene?

The principles underlying the committee's approach can be briefly restated as follows. There should be a presumption in favour of freedom of expression, and only material of which the production causes or involves harm can justify prohibition; legislation should not go beyond that to express and affirm morality. The fact that people may be deeply offended by certain material or find it morally objectionable is not sufficient to justify its outright suppression, though it might be sufficient to justify controls on its visibility, availability and so on. The law's principal object should be to restrict pornography so that it would not be offensive to people going about their ordinary business and to prevent its exposure to young people. The committee did not think, however, that a restriction on the display of such material would be effective, in part because it considered that the offensiveness of such material depended more on what people know the contents of the material to be than in what is actually displayed. It is by that route that the committee arrives at its proposals for confining the sale of "restricted" material to special premises. None of that, however, is to apply to the written word, which is to be free from prohibition and restriction.

Thus the committee sought to devise a set of proposals based not on moral judgments about pornography but on, as it saw it, the more objective grounds of harm—in the case of prohibition—and offensiveness—in the case of restriction. The committee recognised that if its proposals were adopted some material could be produced or imported, and sold in restricted conditions, which would at present be considered to be obscene. A significant amount of material now found obscene, in criminal or forfeiture proceedings, is written material which under the Williams approach would escape control altogether: for example, pornographic novelettes, with no literary pretensions, known to the police as "readers". But the committee also thought that its proposals would have the result of removing objectionable material from ordinary shops. Those who wanted explicit material would be able to get it and the rest of the public would be spared offence.

When the committee turned to consider live entertainment and films, it concluded that the different nature of the medium justified the use of different criteria. At the risk perhaps of some inconsistency with its commitment to the principle that only provable harm justifies prohibition, the committee was not prepared to permit actual sexual activity of an offensive nature in live performance, though simulated sexual activity of an offensive nature would be merely restricted. As to films, the committee thought that the "extreme vividness and immediacy" of that medium called for caution, and was shocked by some of the sadistic material which it saw. The committee recommended the continuation of pre-censorship of films—including discretion to refuse to grant a certificate for public exhibition—but exercisable by a statutory film examining board instead of the British Board of Film Censors and local authorities.

In summary, therefore, the Williams committee thought that what it termed the "harm condition" was the paramount principle: only that which caused harm should be suppressed by the law. Other material might be restricted in order to avoid offence and to protect the young, but only that material which, "beyond reasonable doubt", caused harm could be prohibited entirely. The Williams committee concluded, after examining research and other evidence, that only material which caused actual physical harm or which involved children fell into this category.

We are aware, however, from the comments which we have received on the committee's proposals that many disagree, and disagree profoundly, with the committee on this point, while others are in varying measure content with that approach. I think that it may be of value for me to describe, very broadly, the principal viewpoints of those who have responded to the report.

Many, including a substantial proportion of those members of the public who commented, objected to pornography on moral grounds and said that they would like to see it outlawed entirely. Their views differ radically, of course, from those of the Williams committee. Some said that they did not accept the need to prove harm; others disagreed with the committee's evaluation of the available evidence. The most trenchant criticism perhaps was that which argued that pornography promoted a view of sexuality which was dehumanising, destructive of individual integrity and exploitative, commending a style of sexual feelings and behaviour which was hostile to marriage and family life and thus inimical to the well-being of society as a whole.

Other groups and individuals concentrated on specific consequences of the committee's proposals which they regarded as unacceptable: a link which they perceived between the availability of pornography and the incidence of serious sex crimes; the objectionable nature of the material which would be available in restricted premises and the fact that it might find its way into the hands of the young.

A third group thought that, by and large, the two-tier system of control proposed by the committee, based on harm and offensiveness, provided a reasonably balanced package; and a number of those concerned with the operation of the law saw in the committee's proposals the prospect of a considerable improvement on the present legislation.

Finally, there were those with a special interest, in particular those concerned with the cinema. A number clearly felt that the committee had been inconsistent in approving pre-censorship of films for adults, but not for publications. Some thought that control of films should be left to the criminal law.

What gives the Government most concern is the volume and strength of the views expressed to us that the promotion of a degrading view of human relationships must inevitably be damaging to society. One does not have to be anything approaching a fundamentalist moral zealot to believe that. There is, in particular, a great deal of concern, as we all know, about the increase in violent sexual crimes. Sexual offences are today committed with violent embellishments of a nature virtually never encountered 10 years ago. Is it unreasonable to think that that may be due, in part at least, to the acting out of what is seen in pornographic publications?

Why then, it may be asked, should it be necessary to prove beyond reasonable doubt that certain harm follows—a standard of proof which the committee itself acknowledged must inevitably be difficult to achieve? There are to be found expert witnesses who will differ profoundly as to the conclusions to be drawn from almost any evidence. Some may well feel that the caution which the committee urged in the case of violent films, notwithstanding the absence of established proof of harm, would be equally appropriately applied to publications.

We are, accordingly, faced with profound disagreement, even about the very principle underlying this part of the committee's report.

Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)

When the Minister mentioned the increase in violent sexual crime over the past 10 years, I imagine that he meant about that period. Presumably the Williams committee, which reported relatively recently, had that material before it, at least up to the date of its report. Will the Minister confirm that?

Mr. Mayhew

It is the experience among those dealing with the type of crime with which we are concerned that violent features to the ordinary crimes of rape and other sexual attack have greatly increased. I believe that that experience was available to the Williams committee, although I do not recall at the moment whether it was specifically noted in the conclusions that it reached. However, it is a matter of experience to those who are dealing with these cases today in the courts, as I believe the right hon. and learned Gentleman will confirm.

I do not believe that one can realistically hope to legislate pornography out of existence. One has to recognise the limitations which govern the effective application of the criminal law. There is, therefore, in principle, a good deal of attraction in the Williams committee's general approach of placing tough restrictions on general availability in order to prevent offence and to protect the young, while permitting those who want to see pornographic material to do so, provided that certain safeguards exist.

However, is the balance right? Would the committee's proposals provide adequate protection for the public? Certainly, in the case of the written word, the Government do not believe so. We do not believe that a case has been made out for removing, as the committee proposed, all legal controls over material consisting entirely of the written word. After all, the effect of such material, even if not as immediate in its impact as pictorial material, may be just as profound. The committee itself emphasised the importance of the written word as a means of communication.

I believe that the committee's recommendation may also have been based, in part at least, on some misapprehension about the way in which the law operates at present. The committee's report notes the view that the law was unlikely to be invoked again in respect of written works. It is true that written works with some claim to literary merit have not recently been—and perhaps are unlikely to be—the subject of proceedings under the Obscene Publications Acts. However, as I have already mentioned, and as the Metropolitan Police have confirmed, other pornographic written works—which the police term "readers"—are commonly found "obscene" by the courts, in breach of the statute. I am sure that most right hon. and hon. Members will agree that it would be unacceptable if works of this kind, carrying sometimes the most explicit titles, could be openly displayed and sold without any legal sanction in, for example, local newsagents.

The Government are concerned, too, about whether the committee's proposals achieve a reasonable balance in relation to pictorial material. It must be recognised that some pictorial material may be so deeply offensive or shocking as to raise the question whether, in spite of the absence of clear evidence of harm, it would be proper to permit even its restricted circulation. This may be particularly true, for example, of material which depicts illegal acts such as buggery and bestiality, which the Williams committee excluded from its category of prohibited material.

For my part, I find in impossible to see why, once we have conceded that certain material is properly prohibited, this kind of material should not be so treated. I believe that there may be many who, while not wishing to see all pornography banned, would nevertheless feel that the line between "prohibited" and "restricted" material should be drawn with much greater caution. In saying this, I fully recognise that the further one moves away from a limited prohibition which can be determined on reasonably objective grounds, the harder it is to avoid a test which rests increasingly on a subjective moral judgment about the material, with the uncertainty and difficulties of enforcement that that implies—and I acknowledge that I have failed to avoid it myself, but I do not mind about that.

Apart from the "harm condition" the other main plank of the committee's proposals on publications is that people should not have pornography forced upon them. Indeed, the committee states, in paragraph 9.7 of the report that the law should primarily aim to restrict pornography so that it will not be offensive to the public, and to satisfy the widespread feeling that young people should not be exposed to material of this kind". I am sure that, as the support for the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) has so demonstrated, there is warm agreement with the committee's view that people should be able to go about their ordinary business without having such material obtruded upon them.

However, one must again ask whether the committee's proposals would achieve its objective. They are, in principle, tougher—and, arguably, more likely to be effective—than controls on indecent displays, because they would secure that the whole of the material was subject to the test: an inoffensive cover would not therefore confer immunity on contents that were offensive. Any material falling within the definition would be banned entirely from ordinary shops.

However, I believe that we must ask just what would be caught by the definition. The test proposed is not whether material itself is offensive but whether its unrestricted availability would be 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. It may prove to be the best that can practically be achieved, but it must be said that this is a far from simple or certain test. It is worth bearing in mind, too, that no wider criterion is proposed for determining what could be put on display in public places. Anything that did not fall within the test that I have quoted could be emblazoned, for example, on hoardings and posters for all to see, no matter in what location.

Another aspect of the committee's proposals on "restricted" material which has given rise to much comment is the regulation of the premises which would be able to sell such material. In particular, should there be some control over the numbers and location of such premises? The committee thought not. However, I am aware of the deep concern felt in the House and among our constituents about the opening of sex shops. We are all aware of this particularly topical area of mounting concern.

The concern was evident again in the Adjournment debate which took place only on Tuesday evening on the planning classification of sex shops. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment made clear, the Government regard this as a very serious matter. He explained, however, that this is not a problem which can be solved easily by making, for example, a minor change in the planning legislation. I wish that it were as simple as that.

Hon. Members will know that we have been giving considerable thought, therefore, to the possibility of introducing a licensing system. My right hon. Friend has, indeed, expressed his support in principle for a proposal by the GLC and Westminster city council to introduce such a scheme in Greater London in the GLC's general powers Bill next Session. I have great sympathy with the view that urgent action is needed, but it is vital that, if a licensing system is to be established, it should be one that works. That is why we are most anxious to study the GLC's proposals before going any further, but, as my hon. Friend said on Tuesday evening, we shall consider whether there is any way in which speedier progress can possibly be made.

I turn now to the committee's recommendations on films.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

It is with a certain sense of dismay that some of us hear my hon. and learned Friend turn from the written word to the question of films without having advanced any improvement in the law. Since he seems to be rejecting the Williams proposal on the written word—that control should be removed—and since he seems to be accepting that there is a strong feeling that there is too much corrupting pornography in the written word, surely it is incumbent on the Government at some stage to produce positive proposals to improve the situation.

Mr. Mayhew

I think that all of us agree that the existing law is not adequate. On the other hand, as the Government sought to indicate, it is far from a dead letter. We believe that it is extremely important that we do not go firm on proposals for amending the legislation without taking the fullest account of the views expressed on these difficult matters, not only in the country but in the House. We do not believe that we have received the fullest advice available. That is one of the reasons why we wish to hear what is said in the House today.

I turn now to the committee's recommendations on films. If I appear to deal with them rather briefly, it is only because I am anxious not to take too much of the House's time. The Government agree unreservedly with the committee's recommendation that the pre-censorship of films should continue. I think that few, reading the committee's description in paragraph 12.10 of some of the material which it viewed, could be anything but deeply alarmed at any prospect that material of that kind could be shown on general release in our cinemas. I quote briefly from that passage: It is not simply the extremity of the violence which concerns us: we found it extremely disturbing that highly explicit depictions of mutilation, savagery, menace and humiliation should be presented for the entertainment of an audience in a way that appeared to emphasise the pleasures of sadism. Indeed, some of the film sequences we saw seemed to have no purpose or justification other than to reinforce or sell the idea that it can be highly pleasurable to inflict injury, pain or humiliation (often in a sexual context) on others. Film, in our view, is a uniquely powerful instrument: the close-up, fast cutting, the sophistication of modern makeup and special effects techniques, the heightening effect of sound effects and music, all combine on the large screen to produce an impact which no other medium can create. As hon. Members will be aware, however, the committee proposed that a new film censorship body, the film examining board, should be created to replace the present British Board of Film Censors and the censorship powers of the local cinema licensing authorities. The Government have not reached any firm conclusion on these recommendations. But it is fair to say that we would take a lot of convincing that such far-reaching changes are necessary.

We note that the Williams committee found little to criticise in the present board's operations, and we see value in people, through their elected representatives, continuing to have a direct say in what may be shown in their own local cinemas. The present arrangements avoid the suspicion that would settle upon any statutory body appointed by central Government, however eminent or scrupulous its members, that somehow the censorship of individual films is influenced by central Government. It is clear, for example, from comments that we have received from cinema interests that such concern would arise. On a less lofty plane, the institution and financing of a new quango is not in itself an attractive proposition today.

Considerations of time force me to pass over the detail of the committee's proposals for a new board, though I would mention in passing that the proposal for an "11A" film category, which would permit children under 11 years to be admitted to films if accompanied by a responsible adult, has met with a good deal of criticsm. Many thought that it would encourage children to hang around cinemas, touting for an adult to take them inside.

I should, however, comment in more detail on the committee's recommendations in respect of the so-called commercial cinema clubs. These clubs, as the committee points out, are able to evade the safety and film censorship requirements by purporting to operate on a "members only" basis. In practice, however, they are often virtually indistinguishable from ordinary public cinemas. Membership can often be had free of charge and without any waiting period. There is no control over the kind of films shown or the audiences admitted to them. The Government agree with the committee's view that the present position is unsatisfactory, and should, if possible, be remedied. I think that this may be an area in which, failing agreement on more comprehensive legislation, some limited action might be taken which would be widely supported.

I have to say, however, that the committee's related proposal, which would allow some of the films shown by these clubs to be shown in specially designated cinemas under an "18R" certificate, is clearly controversial. On the one hand, many would object in principle to the creation of a category of films and cinemas primarily devoted to the showing of pornographic films. On the other hand, there is concern that local authorities would not in practice designate any cinemas at all in their area, and that those who wished to see uncertificated films, including some films with claims to artistic merit, would be denied the opportunity of doing so.

I hope that it will be evident from what I said that the Government have given, and are continuing to give, very careful consideration to the Williams committee's proposals. I know that there are those, on either side of the argument, who would like us to be less cautious. I suspect that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) is one of them. If I may be allowed a personal comment, I must say that I rather sympathise with the general proposition "Better any decision than none", but I know it to be unwise, although I understand the impatience for comprehensive legislation. None of us can be very happy with the law as it stands.

I suggest, however, that one can only hope to make a sensible and lasting advance in this field on the basis of a reasonable measure of agreement, at least about the direction which legislation should take and the broad approach which should be adopted. It would be nice if all that was needed was for the Government to give a lead. But one can find oneself setting a lead which others do not follow. It seems clear from the many comments which we have received on the committee's proposals—and this may well be confirmed by the debate today—that agreement of this kind is some way off.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's view is, accordingly, that while he remains very willing to consider the possibility of legislation in this Parliament, he does not at present see any early prospect of general Government legislation in this field. However, it may well be possible in the meantime to make progress on narrower fronts. The House as a whole, for example, has given a warm welcome to the Bill, which will have its Report stage later today in another place, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove. Limited but nevertheles useful progress might similarly be made in other areas. We shall take heed of the views of the House on these matters, as indeed we shall on the wider questions posed by the Williams committee's distinguished report.

10.7 am

Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)

I am sure that the whole House would like to thank the Government for providing time for this debate, for which we have been asking throughout the proceedings on the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill and even before that. From the point of view of my party—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"]. I am about to explain. We make up in quality what we lack in quantity.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

Does my hon. Friend agree that that applies to both sides of the House?

Dr. Summerskill

I shall wait and see about that. I think that it will be found that there is unanimous agreement on the Labour side of the House. I am not sure that the same will be true of the Conservative side as the debate proceeds.

The Williams report, published one-and-a-half years ago, is at long last receiving the consideration of the House. I think that even among those who do not agree with its findings, it has been commended for its clarity and readability. It is an extremely comprehensive analysis of a complex, long standing problem. There has certainly not been such an impressive analysis of the problem before, and I doubt whether there will be another for a long time to come. I therefore congratulate Professor Williams and his committee. The Minister keeps saying "On the one hand this" and "On the other hand that" and telling us that the Government would like to lead but do not wish to lead unless they are: followed. It is remarkable that this was a unanimous report. This highly complex, emotive and controversial subject nevertheless produced a unanimous set of recommendations, and a large number of them.

We all agree that we need some controls. It is generally accepted that they should concern obscenity, indecency and violence in publications, displays and entertainment. Pornography of violence and sadism can often be, to many of us, the most offensive kind. As the Minister rightly pointed out, the degradation of women often features prominently in pornographic material. It is usually women who serve as the commercially exploited subjects, or objects in sexually violent or sadistic material. The majority of women are offended by the demeaning way in which this portrays or interprets their sex.

The difficulty of arriving at a consensus on this complex subject arises from three main requirements. The first is that there should be freedom for people to express their views and feelings through a variety of media, and freedom for others to see and hear what they choose to. Those freedoms must be jealously guarded, but they must be balanced against the rights of others who wish to be protected from any offensive or harmful effect of this material. That applies especially to children, who should be protected by the State.

We then have to consider the relative influence and effect of all the different media—the printed word, displays, films and live performances. Can these be treated in the same way, and should they be in respect of the imposition of controls and restrictions? The third aspect is whether existing restrictions are excessive, adequate or inadequate, and whether they are enforced.

The Williams committee met 35 times and received written submissions from about 150 organisations and groups and nearly 1,400 individuals. It worked over two years. It studied the results of surveys and opinion polls and went abroad. The Minister says that he has received what he calls a volume of comment. But he did not define his "volume". He gave no figures for the written comments that had been received by the Home Office. Those comments were supposed to be in by last July. I hope that he will explain this point further, because it is important. How does his "volume" compare with the massive volume of evidence received by the Williams committee?

It is unlikely that anyone who took the trouble to write to the Williams committee, to present a great deal of evidence or to see it personally would repeat the whole process to the Home Office. Such people would have felt that they had already submitted their evidence and their opinion. So the Minister should regard the importance, significance and quantity of the information and views given to Williams just as highly as he does the comments received at the Home Office, unless he can tell me that the Home Office received submissions from far more than 150 organisations and groups and far more than 1,400 individuals. Then I shall be extremely impressed by his analysis. He tells us that many disagree and that others are content. He did not tell us how many of each.

Mr. Tim Sainsbury (Hove)

The hon. Lady has been trying to persude us that the presence of only two Labour Members is made up for by their quality. Does not the same go for submissions to the Home Office?

Dr. Summerskill

I certainly anticipated that intervention. The Minister prefers to tell us of the comments received at the Home Office—the number of which he did not disclose—and weigh those against the vast amount of evidence given to the Williams committee. I am talking not about the number of hon. Members present for the debate—it is not very great on the Conservative Benches either—but about two years of evidence received by the Williams committee. Will the Minister say how that compares with the comments he received, and which he spent 10 minutes of the debate telling us about?

The Minister told us, as he said during the proceedings on the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill, that in the Government's view there was insufficient general agreement on the subject to warrant early legislation. He had, therefore, clearly decided that before this debate ever arose. He bases that view presumably on the comments sent to the Home Office. The Williams committee helped the Minister by producing both unanimous report and draft legislation. It did not attach its proposals to the report, but produced a draft Bill. So it presented more than just a vague set of recommendations. The committee has seen to it that it can be put into practical legal effect. There is no doubt that the law desperately needs rationalising to transform it into a comprehensible and comprehensive whole.

I did not agree with the Minister when he seemed sympathetic to the idea of more piecemeal private Members' legislation on the subject. We discovered in our discussions on the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill—it remains to be seen whether that will prove satisfactory—that it is not appropriate to leave this vast matter to private Members.

The Williams committee was faced with the difficult task of dealing with laws in relation to a whole range of art forms. It was clearly tempting to bring them all under the same umbrella. But they do not have the same influence or effect. As the committee concluded, the printed word by its nature is neither immediately offensive nor capable of involving the harms identified by the report. I agree with that and I put films into a separate category. By their nature they can be immediately offensive. There is a lot to be said for films and film censorship being taken separately as a different subject, perhaps worthy of a separate report. The techniques of the cinema are uniquely powerful in their influence and, unlike books, magazines, plays or indecent displays, they undergo vetting and censorship before they are marketed.

The present system of film censorship is full of anomalies and nonsenses. Cinema clubs blatantly abuse the system since they are designed solely for the exhibition of films which would not be passed under the censorship arrangements. Some of them will admit anyone who fills in a so-called membership form with a false name and address. Although these clubs are supposed to fall within the scope of the obscene publications legislation, the law does not appear to be enforced.

The legal powers of the local licensing authorities to censor films are hardly used. The Greater London Council had a famous debate in 1975 on whether to opt out of censorship for the over-18s. Only about 72 of the 370 licensing authorities in England and Wales take a regular interest in film censorship and review or preview films. Only from time to time do they prohibit a film's exhibition. As everyone knows, if a film is banned in one area, the publicity that this receives is enormous, and people often flock to a neighbouring area to see it.

The third anomaly is the British Board of Film Censors. This consists of a few people acting as a self-regulatory, self-perpetuating body, which is independent in the sense that it is independent of the State, but it is connected with the film world. The members are not elected, they have not been appointed by any statute, and they are not really answerable to anybody. I am not even sure what are their qualifications to be the arbiters of what is right and what is wrong for people to see at the cinema.

These are by no means all the anomalies, but the last one that I wish to mention is that the Williams committee completely failed to look into the future and to anticipate technological developments. I refer here to video films, which were not mentioned in the Minister's speech. I hope that in his reply he, too, will look into the future, because there will be a revolution in this respect. I could mention satellites. There will come a time, in a few years, when foreign films will be beamed down on to this country. What are we to do about them? But I shall confine myself to video cassettes and video discs.

In many High Streets all over the country, such devices are now available to anyone who can walk in and buy them, including children. There is no restriction upon a child buying an X film on a video cassette or video disc, taking it home and playing it over and over again. Yet that child would not be allowed to go into a cinema and see that film, even if accompanied by an adult.

I am convinced by the arguments for retaining a system of pre-censorship of films. This already exists anyway and is appropriate for that particular different medium. I can see that the establishment of a film examining board would remove the anomalies in the present system and put everything on a more rational footing. That is its main attraction. But, as the report states, the present system for the censorship of films has, by and large, served us well.

To set up a State statutory body with censorship powers would be a new departure and would need careful consideration. I hope that it would not be the thin end of the wedge, and lead to statutory boards to look at plays and books. I fear that the type of people attracted to serve on a board would be the pro-censorship lobby rather than those with more liberal views on the matter.

My most serious reservation is that presumably the membership of the new quango would be appointed by the Home Secretary. The Minister said that he did not want another quango, but the Government have already set up 55 new ones in the last two years, so that it would not matter if there were a fifty-sixth. I did not think that the Minister's argument was a very good one. The Home Secretary would appoint the membership of the new quango, giving a Minister a quite new power in a delicate field of censorship, even though it would be power from some distance.

The House must ensure that, in its desire to clarify and tidy up the present law, it does not go too far down the censorship road, involving, as the report envisages, criteria laid down by statute for censorship of films. It is one thing to do away with the powers of local authorities—and most people agree that they should be done away with, except for the British Board of Film Censors. It is quite another thing to set up a State quango to replace the present board, especially as the Williams committee has described State censorship as a blunt and treacherous instrument. Maybe the Minister or the Government can think of a replacement for the local authorities that would be a more relaxed and flexible scheme than this.

The other point that the Minister did not mention was the one made by the British Board of Film censors, which would like to keep the concept of "deprave and corrupt" for films. The board takes the view that, when narrowly and literally applied, this test has proved a valuable guideline in determining the sort of material which ought properly to be prohibited on the grounds of its harmful and dangerous effect on a significant proportion of a probable audience. The board has found that it works for it in regard to films.

I come now to books, displays and live entertainment, and to the vexed question of the short-term and long-term effects of the portrayal of obscenity, indecency and violence upon the behaviour and attitudes of children and adults. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr Silkin) will deal with this in more detail. But I find it extremely hard—as, I think, the committee did—to relate cause and effect, especially when society's attitudes and values are changing all the time and the statistical and other evidence often seems to point in opposite directions. The evidence is often promoted by almost fanatical people who have a firm conviction that their view is right, that their evidence is right, and that the other view and the other evidence are wrong.

From what one has been able to read about it, there does not seem to be demonstrated a positive connection between, for example, the availability of pornography and the commission of sexual offences. If our society is declining morally or culturally, which is open to question, I doubt whether that decline can be stopped by making laws.

The Obscene Publications Act, which uses the phrase "deprave and corrupt" is now generally agreed to have virtually no defenders—apart from the instance I have mentioned with regard to films. Similarly, the phrase "the public good" has been bandied about for so long that it has now become almost meaningless. Other laws apply to the sale of goods—totally different laws from the Obscene Publications Act—and for each of these laws the tests are different, so that the committee is correct when it says that The law, in short, is a mess. We found this when we were discussing the indecent displays legislation.

Although the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill serves to repeal several nineteenth century Acts and gets rid of the phrase "rogue and vagabond", it still keeps the longstanding and undefined word "indecent". the definition of which is impossible. Probably every one of us would have a different view as to what it means, and the police and the courts would probably have different views.

We all want to see a sensible, effective, enforceable law to replace the present vague and ineffective law, and I strongly support the main recommendations of the committee. Those three were: that there should be a comprehesive new statute, starting afresh; that terms such as "obscene," "indecent," "depraved" and "corrupt" should be abandoned as having outlived their usefulness; and that the criterion should be to prevent offence to reasonable people being caused by the unrestricted availability of certain kinds of material.

I should have thought that we could find a majority agreement on those three main recommendations of the Williams committee. It is not possible to please all the people all the time—I am sure that everyone would agree with that—but we can try to please most of the people most of the time. I hope that the Minister will not feel that he has got to get some great unanimous opinion on the subject, because he will not achieve that. I hope that he will try to get a majority acceptance of those three recommendations, or at least, in his analysis of the report's evidence and the comments of the Home Office, find a majority view.

Mr. W. R. Ree-Davies (Thanet, West)

I am sure that the whole House agrees with the first two objectives of the Williams report, which are contained on page 159 of the summary. In other words, I am sure that hon. Members will agree to the introduction of a statute and to the scrapping of the terms "obscene" and "depraved" and "corrupt". Years ago, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I tried to arrive at a definition in a pamphlet that we produced through the Inns of Court Conservative Lawyers Society.

When it was put to the Home Office, it replied that the definition was impossible.

The hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) said that the principal objective of the law should be to prevent certain types of material from causing offence to reasonable people and that such material should not be available to young people. That is the nub of the problem. How does one define "material that causes offence to reasonable people"? If that is the definition, it is very wide.

Dr. Summerskill

I am glad to hear that the hon. and learned Gentleman feels that hon. Members would be unanimous about accepting the report's first two recommendations.

Mr. Rees-Davies

There is overwhelming support for them.

Dr. Summerskill

I am sure that the Minister would like to know that it is our unanimous view that the Government should accept the first two recommendations. That gives the Minister a sound start. However, the Minister defended the use of "indecent" in a new piece of legislation that is still going through the House. He wishes to maintain an old, ineffective, long standing and undefined word in that legislation. But, I am pleased to have the support of the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies). The hon. and learned Gentleman believes that all hon. Members will accept the first two recommendations.

I agree that we shall know the effect of any law only when it has been implemented. However, the present law is a mess. The present arrangement is not being enforced. It is anomalous and, as the Minister appreciated, contains difficulties. The Williams report therefore offers a realistic and reasonable framework in which to introduce new legislation. It was unanimously decided that it was possible to offer a reasoned reform of the existing archaic controls, on the basis of the draft Bill that the committee produced. On the whole, the report has come up with the right answers. However, I repeat the reservation about film censorship.

The report was published one-and-a-half years ago. The comments invited by the Home Office had to be in by last July. A debate has not taken place until today. How much longer do the Government need, and how much more evidence must they have before they will take the plunge? It is time that the plunge was taken. The Minister will not receive much more evidence or hear many more comments. When the Minister replies I hope that he will have reached a more definite view than the one that he appeared to express at the beginning of the debate.

10.33 am
Mr. Tim Sainsbury (Hove)

This debate is a happy by-product of our proceedings on the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill. That Bill gave many of us the opportunity to emphasise that a debate on the valuable Williams report was long overdue. We all welcome the clear, eloquent speech made by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State.

I welcome the Government's view that the written word should not fall completely outside control, contrary to the suggestion in the report. The country will welcome that clear statement from the Minister. I also welcome his view that the line between, in the Williams phraseology, "prohibition" and "restriction" should be drawn more cautiously than suggested by the committee. We scarcely needed reminding of the Government's view that the law is inadequate. Against that background, I was sorry to hear that the Government were still reluctant to introduce legislation.

I agreed with the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) when she asked the Government what more they wanted before they would "take the plunge". I do not know that I would have used that expression, because it does not seem to be the weather for such activity. However, the report was published more than one-and-a-half years ago. It is nearly a year since comments were invited and received. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend will have read the extremely interesting debate that took place some time ago in the other place. In addition, today's debate has been long delayed. What more do the Government want to hear before introducing legislation? I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will let us know.

The Williams report poses three questions. First, should the Government do anything about the law of obscenity and film censorship? Secondly, if so, should they broadly follow—as the hon. Member for Halifax suggested—the unanimous recommendations of the Williams committee? Thirdly, if not, what direction should the Government's legislation take?

The answer to the first question must be "Yes". Reasons can be advanced for not taking action. One, which my hon. and learned Friend has again put forward today, seems strange and inappropriate. It is said that there is no consensus. The supporters of proportional representation will welcome the Government's conversion to the view that no legislation can take place without consensus. However, we would take little action on anything—whether the death penalty or how to measure the money supply—if we had to wait for a consensus. A reasonable measure of agreement is required. Today, it looks as if more contributions to the debate will be made by Conservative Members than by Opposition Members. I am sure that our contributions will be equal to, if not better than, those of Opposition Members. However, I am sure that a reasonable measure of agreement will emerge from the debate.

A second, rather feeble argument is advanced against legislation. It is suggested that such legislation would be too difficult. That is a bit of a lawyer's argument, and I am not a lawyer. It is claimed that it is too difficult to find the right definition of what we wish to prohibit. However, I shall counter that by saying that there is universal agreement that the present law is in a mess. The right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin) reminded us of that during our debates on the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill. All hon. Members—lawyers and non-lawyers—seem to agree that the present law is unacceptable and does not work. Surely that poses a challenge to the Government. Even if it is difficult, they should take action.

It is sometimes argued that it is not worth the Governments doing anything because we cannot eliminate pornography and we shall drive it underground if we try to prohibit certain material. That is another feeble argument. We do not say that because we cannot eliminate pickpockets and burglaries we should not legislate against them.

There is a clear view that some categories of material ought to be prohibited. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State seems to accept that view, and, even if we acknowledge that prohibition will not result in elimination, we should try to reduce the availability of such material as much as possible.

The second question that we must consider is whether legislation that the Government ought to introduce should be based on the recommendations of the Williams committee. I hope that I am not being unfair when I paraphrase those recommendations as being broadly, that almost anything goes, provided the public display of the material is controlled.

The House has accepted the need for the control of indecent public displays and the Williams report recognised that that is a major cause of public concern. I do not believe that the House should accept the rest of the Williams approach, at least in regard to obscenity. I shall direct most of my remarks to obscenity. I shall not talk about the cinema, because that is an area to which other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, North, (Mr. Durant), will refer.

We have to recognise that the Williams report is extremely well written. I pay tribute to the quality of the English, if not to its conclusions. It is carefully argued and apparently convincing. I say "apparently" because if we accept two propositions advanced in chapters 5 and 6 the rest of the recommendations seem to follow logically.

If I may paraphrase those propositions, chapter 5 advances the argument that if material does not cause harm—if there is not what the committee calls a "harm condition"—we need not worry about that material. Chapter 6 argues that pornography does not harm and therefore we should not worry about its availability in society.

If we examine those propositions carefully, separately and in combination, we can see that they do not support the weight of the committee's recommendations. First, there is an artificially narrow definition of harm in chapter 5. I refer my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State to the excellent speech on that aspect by the Bishop of Durham in another place.

The committee has confined the definition of harm to readily identifiable harm to individuals reflecting itself in criminal behaviour. Chapter 6 includes statistics of rape and sexual offences, but the committee seems to have ignored the longer-term harm not just to individuals but to society. Chapter 6 includes no statistics about divorce and pregnancies among girls under 16. It is dangerous to accept that the harm caused by pornography is confined in the way that chapter 5 would lead us to suppose. Harm would follow the wider availability of hard core pornography. It would result in a low-level, insidious poisoning of our social attitudes and our attitudes to marriage and the family. The report failed to take adequate account of that.

The statistics in chapter 6, which are questionable in any event, seek to answer a hypothetical question. The committee tried to relate variations in harm and crime statistics to variations in the past and present availability of pornography in this country and others, but the committee obviously cannot say what might follow from a wider availability of the worst sort of material. That must raise major doubts about the statistical evidence advanced in chapter 6.

The committee emphasises in paragraph 1.10 that research tends, over and over again, to be inconclusive. If research is inconclusive, that raises doubts about whether the evidence supports the committee's recommendations. It is, perhaps, because the committee accepts that evidence is inconclusive that we are asked to accept the dubious proposition in paragraph 5.31— the requirement … that the causation of the harm should lie `beyond reasonable doubt'. In considering legislation, why should the causation of harm have to lie beyond reasonable doubt? I note that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State has serious doubts about that. It is not as though the material that we are concerned with has literary or artistic merit; at least the committee was not taken in on those grounds. One of the most nicely underwritten paragraphs, which met with my approval, was paragraph 5.12: Any Committee inquiring into this kind of subject is likely to encounter a certain amount of humbug. Perhaps the most striking example of it that came our way was the pretence that present day commercial pornography represents some fulfilment of liberal and progressive hopes. I hope that the House will not fall into the trap of suggesting that, because "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was once banned as pornography, the material that we are now concerned with has literary or artistic merit of the sort that might apply to that book or similar material, much of which is referred to in the report, almost, it seems, to give the impression that if one wishes to draw the line between prohibition and restriction more cautiously, as my hon. and learned Friend has suggested, one is attacking works of literary merit. I do not accept that.

There is a third question for the House to consider. If we reject the Williams report, what other answer should we seek? A defence that material has literary or artistic merit by normally accepted standards—not that its publication advances the public good—is a safeguard that it might be worth including in legislation. If by mischance the odd work slipped through the net on that defence, it might be a price worth paying to make sure that legislation was not brought into disrepute by being used to reject material which had genuine merit.

Together, the key chapters of the Williams report—chapters 5 and 6—elegantly oversimplify a very difficult problem. I suggest that the damage done by the widespread availability of hard core pornography is a pollution of our environment, the consequences of which the Williams committee overlooked. It is not unlike lead pollution, about which the House has heard recently that the Government are to take action. It is very easy to say that lead is a natural material in the environment, that we all have some lead in our blood, and that a little lead never did anyone any harm. We overlook the fact that lead is a low-level, cumulative poison which builds up, rather like the material that we are discussing, and it is especially dangerous to the young who have a lower level of susceptibility to lead poisoning. It is not enough to say that a little does us no harm.

With that sort of poison, we must make sure that we do not allow the cumulative build-up to create consequences that we have not foreseen and try too late to reverse them.

That is why the Government should not delay in taking action. They should need nothing else other than a great deal of effort to get the right drafting. They should base the proposals which they bring before the House not on those advanced in the Williams report but on the need to prohibit the availability of the worst sort of material which is now to be found in the country. It is not an issue of literary and artistic merit and enlightened and progressive opinion opposed to ignorant and prejudiced censorship.

We are engaged in a battle to uphold Christian and moral standards in the community. It is not just, as the hon. Member for Halifax said, that hard core pornography is degrading to women, although the House will agree about that; it is not just that it is damaging to marriage and to the family, about which again I hope the House will agree. The worst aspect of it is that it is a pervasive, cumulative poison in society which diminishes us all. We should not accept it. Far less should we welcome it. I believe that we should reject it, and I hope that the Government will help us to do so at an early date.

10.54 am
Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) on a very thoughtful and constructive speech. He will not expect me to agree with all of it, but I agree with a great deal of it, especially his plea to the Government to take reasonably early action.

One of the difficulties of this subject is that although an hon. Member can make a careful, thoughtful and constructive speech of that kind, when we seek to put into legislative form the ideas contained in the speech, we run into difficulty, as the hon. Member for Hove found when he introduced his Indecent Displays (Control) Bill, which I fear that I had to criticise. I understand the problems of the Government in bringing forward legislation, fur that reason, if for no other.

I, too, am grateful for the fact that the Government have mounted this debate, though I regret that it has attracted so few hon. Members. I regret especially that it has attracted so few Opposition Members, though recently their number has increased by 50 per cent. in quantity and 75 per cent. in quality. It is a disgrace that so few hon. Members—and those, for the most part, hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee which considered the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill—have seen fit to attend this debate.

I do not want to appear to be making excuses, but one of the reasons for today's thin attendance may be that the debate is being held after the proceedings on the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill, when we went into many of these matters in detail. There was a very much better attendance for the debates on that Bill. As a result, when we come to debate the wider issue, there is understandably a thin attendance. One of my criticisms of the Government is that this debate should have been mounted before the introduction of the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill, and not after it.

I echo the praise which has been bestowed upon the Williams committee, by some more qualified than others. It was a very distinguished committee, with a very distinguished chairman. The lay-out of the report, the clear, logical approach which it adopts and its very wording cannot fail to command the highest praise for the chairman and members of the committee. The members were of a very high standard. From the point of view of a lawyer, I was especially pleased that one member was his Honour Judge Leonard, the Common Serjeant, who is a man of great objectivity and integrity. When I was Attorney-General, I had many dealings with him and came to respect him highly. Any report bearing his imprimatur is one which must encourage respect. We must remember, too, that the committee was concerned with a vast amount of evidence which differed a great deal in character. The committee analysed it and formed its conclusions upon it in an extremely impressive manner.

Despite a number of earlier comments, I detect a measure of consensus already forming in the debate, and the speeches to which we have listened so far have been directed to the acceptance of at least two broad propositions. The first is that the existing law is, to quote the hon. Member for Hove—who, whether he knew it or not, was quoting from the Williams report—"in a mess." Although I said that in Committee, I had been anticipated by the Williams report. It is chaotic. To use my own expression, it is a quagmire.

I have some parental responsibility for the Williams committee. When, as Attorney-General, I sought to carry out my duties, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer), the then Solicitor-General, I found that it was impossible to approach the problem in a sensible, logical and constructive way—and not just because, in different parts of the country, different decisions are arrived at about the same works.

In a sense, that may be justifiable. One can look at it in two different ways. One can say that it is very unfair on those who produce works because they do not know whether those works will be universally acceptable. They may be acceptable in Barrow, but not in Chester. That is one approach, but the other approach, which emerged in part from what the Minister said, is that local authorities, or local people in different parts of the country, may take different views and are entitled to give expression to them. That is one of the difficulties that we have to meet.

However, leaving that aside, what is clear from the Williams committee report and what has been accepted by hon. Members who have spoken in the debate is that the law as it stands is absurd. Terms such as "obscene" cannot be justified on the test of a tendency to deprave and corrupt. One cannot justify different criteria such as that of indecency, however it may differ from the "depraved and corrupt" criterion in relation to other material—material of precisely the same character, but simply arising in different circumstances.

When material enters the country there is a different test from that operating when it is shown in public. Those sorts of things cannot be justified.

It is against that background that the Law Officers have to carry out their duty. I found that our predecessors had had equal difficulty, and because of that they felt it necessary to indulge in the wholly undesirable practice—I am sure that they regarded it as undesirable, too—of legislation by parliamentary undertaking in some part of the law. That is to say, where there was a seizure of material that might prevent people from raising the question whether that material is likely to deprave or corrupt and whether the "public good" defence applies. They gave parliamentary undertakings which, in effect, overrode the law. That is wholly undesirable and should be corrected. In that area, the area where the existing law must be changed, so far we have had unanimity. That is at least some progress.

I was amazed to hear the Minister say that his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary can hold out no hope of anything but possibly piecemeal legislation throughout the rest of this Parliament. Had he said throughout the rest of this Session, I would have understood it; but unless he has some knowledge that I do not have about the prospective length of this Parliament, I cannot understand how he could say that. On the basis that this Parliament may, unhappily, last for another two-and-a-half years, surely the Minister—or the Home Secretary through him—is speaking as a very timorous soul if, after the debates in the House and all the material that has been published, he fails to promise that there will be comprehensive legislation, next Session or the Session after. We heard from the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), that legislation next Session will be rather thin because there is not much of it left and that the Government have already carried out practically all of their manifesto commitments. That makes us even more apprehensive and we wonder why that should be. No doubt the Minister will comment on that in his reply.

Mr. Mayhew

I should like to comment on it straight away. When I was concluding my speech I said that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is very willing to consider the possibility of legislation "in this Parliament", but that at present he does not see an early prospect of general Government legislation in this area.

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I thought that I had made that clear in my remarks. I referred specifically to general legislation as opposed to piecemeal legislation on particular matters. I accept that the Minister gave an indication that piecemeal legislation on particular matters might be possible but that seems to me to be a wholly indesirable way of dealing with a broad subject of this kind.

I can understand the issue of broadcasting being omitted from the terms of reference of the Williams committee because the Annan committee was in the process of reporting. To some extent I understand—I do not wholly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill)—the problems in relation to films. But comprehensive legislation, particularly dealing with the anomalies that exist at present, could be undertaken, and I hope that the Government will have second thoughts about it.

The second consensus that seemed to be emerging was that one can justify restrictive or prohibitive legislation only on the basis of harm. We may differ about where the harm exists. There is a difference between the Minister and me and between the hon. Member for Hove and me about the boundaries of the harm. However, from what I have heard up to now, I do not think that there is any difference between us that freedom should be permitted unless there is discernible harm.

We may differ about the burden of proof. The hon. Member for Hove feels that the suggestion of the Williams committee about the burden of proof—that it should be beyond reasonable doubt, and about where the doubt should lie—is not satisfactory. We can argue about matters of that sort. But here we have a clear consensus that one should not restrict or prohibit unless it can be shown that there is harm in the material being made available.

Mr. Rees-Davies

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that we should pay no regard to page 52 of the Williams committee report, where the famous dictum of Lord Mansfield was quoted and is the law of the country today? It is the House of Lords decision. It says: Whatever is contra bonos mores et decorum the principles of our laws prohibit, and the King's Court as the general censor and guardian of the public morals is bound to restrain and punish. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that the argument developed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) is wrong and that we should disregard the pollution of the mind, which may not involve direct harm but depends on the disintegration of the moral approach?

Mr. Silkin

Of course I am not disregarding the pollution of the mind, because I disagree with the hon. and learned Gentleman in this sense. Pollution of the mind, if it goes sufficiently far, is a form of harm. No one would dispute that. But I do not go to the extent that Lord Mansfield went many years ago in taking the view that the law should prohibit what he calls contra bonos mores. Indeed, the law does not do so in many areas. For example, it does not make adultery illegal, yet many people would regard it as being contra bonos mores. It does not make illegal intercourse outside the matrimonial bond. That is not a test that we can or should apply today. The test of what is harmful is the more sensible and logical one which Williams advanced and supported in the report.

I turn now to the way in which the Williams committee approached the task of deciding what is harmful. It seems to me that it is there that we have the greatest difficulty and controversy.

The first issue of what is ascertainable, so far as evidence can make it ascertainable, is the effect on sex crimes and violence. Williams looked at three different types of evidence: first, evidence which it described as anecdotal—without disrespect to that word—but as a convenient expression of people's experience; secondly, evidence derived from research involving experiments or guided observations, of which there was a great deal; and, thirdly—and that which certainly appeals most to my mind—the statistical analysis of trends in known crime relative to the varying availability of pornography.

I should add to that although the Williams committee did not put it forward as a specific category, the vast number of views expressed to it by different persons and organisations in relation to which it is fair to say that the middle area bad a high degree of consensus and the differences were at the two ends of the scale of that type of evidence.

Those four categories of evidence combined to produce the same result in the minds of the Williams committee, namely that no evidence shows any correlation between sex crimes and violence and the incidence of pornography. I would go further than that. If anything, the Williams committee was being unduly cautious in its approach to the evidence. One need look only at the statistics from 1945 onwards to see that they show, not merely that there is no evidence of a correlation, but that there is no correlation between pornography and sex crimes.

That is dramatically borne out by the graphs in chapter 6. They indicate that throughout the whole of that period crimes of violence generally were rising at a much higher rate than sexual crimes, whether rape, attempted rape or indecent assault.

Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)

Is it not right that while the Williams report said that there was no clear direct and proven link none of the research or comments by Williams shows that there is no link? All that one can say is that the case is not proven one way or the other.

Mr. Silkin

The hon. Gentleman is repeating what I have already said. The Williams committee was not prepared to go further than what he has just said. I suggest that it could have gone further and that it was perhaps unduly cautious. In my view of how the law should approach these matters, it was not necessary for the Williams committee to go further than that, but it could have gone further.

Returning to the statistical material, we have evidence that from 1945 onwards the incidence of crime generally has increased at a much higher rate than the incidence of sexual crime. That is so, notwithstanding that at least at two points in that period the laws relating to pornography were liberalised. In other words, the liberalisation of the laws relating to pornography cannot be proved, on the statistics, to have had the effect of increasing the amount of sexual crime compared with crime generally in the community.

Mr. Lawrence

The view being expressed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be met with shocked disbelief by the majority of the public who, however anecdotal their information may be, are certain that there is a link between violence—particularly pornographic violence—and pornography.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman was Attorney-General for a substantial period. Is he unaware of the number of cases which came before the courts? I cite one in particular of a boy of 15 who, at Leeds Crown Court, admitted raping a girl of 12. The boy's counsel had said that the boy, from a local authority home in Bradford, had committed acts against the girl after looking at a pornographic magazine. The judge, Mr. Justice Jupp, said: If you take my advice, you will never look at a pornographic book again in your life. It leads to crime. There are countless cases in which similar statements have been made by counsel representing accused persons who have been stimulated to sexual offences as a result of reading pornographic literature. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that none of that is significant or important enough to be taken into consideration?

Mr. Silkin

Of course I am not saying that. The hon. and learned Gentleman clearly has not been listening.

Mr. Lawrence

I have been listening most carefully.

Mr. Silkin

I referred to anecdotal evidence, research and statistical evidence and views. I said that the Williams committee, which had all that material before it, reached the conclusion that all the evidence tended to bear out its conclusion, to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred.

I was specifically dealing not with anecdotal evidence—which is not only highly subjective but is difficult to prove one way or the other as to cause and effect—but with the concrete evidence of statistical material. I wonder whether the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has looked at that concrete evidence, which is graphically displayed in the Williams report, if he can make an intervention of the kind that he has just made.

The Williams report contains graphs showing the incidence of certain forms of crime from the date of the report back to 1945. Those graphs show in the clearest possible way that in that period—particularly after the two liberalisations of the law on pornography—sexual offences, if they have risen at all—in one period the number actually fell—have risen at a substantially lower rate than crimes generally, particularly violent crimes.

Because a judge in a particular case made comments of an anecdotal character, the hon. and learned Gentleman cannot say that that countervails the statistical evidence. Surely the hon. and learned Gentleman is not saying that we should disregard statistical evidence because it is unreliable. No lawyer would commend that view lo the House.

The Williams committee examined the experience in other countries and found that in general it supported experience here. I do not by any means rely wholly en statistical evidence, but I believe that there is a strong body of evidence that supports the view that the Williams committee took. The House must take note of that view, unless it decides that it will not set up such committees to try to establish the facts on which to base its opinions and unless it decides to ignore the statistics.

Does the Minister accept the statistics in the Williams report? Have any statistics been produced since the committee reported which countervail its statistics or the deductions which it drew from them?

Having reached that point in the argument, we come to the crucial question about the boundaries of the harm. I generally take the view that the Williams committee took. I agree with the Minister that the definition suggested in the part of the report dealing with restriction could be criticised. Indeed, any definition is capable of being criticised. If we wait, as the hon. Member for Hove said, until we arrive at a definition which has unanimous approval, we shall wait for ever to achieve change.

In the definition of harm there is nothing to which I would object about material whose unrestricted availability is offensive to reasonable people by reason of the manner in which it portrays, deals or relates to violence, cruelty, horror and other sexual and quasi-sexual matters. If that is not an ideal definition we can argue about it in Committee when the Government produce their Bill. We are accustomed to doing that. Some hon. Members will wish to widen the definition and others will wish to narrow it. As a broad basis for a definition of what is harmful to the public it is not bad. It is far better than the present test of being likely to deprave or corrupt—a descriptive test—or the term "indecent" which has little clear meaning.

The committee dealt with what should be restricted in a way which is not so different from the way in which the hon. Member for Hove dealt with the matter in his Bill. He dealt with it on the basis that part of the shop selling certain material would be cut off from the rest of the shop. However, the Williams committee has gone to the full logic of its approach. It says that one can sell or display such material in a shop only if it has a separate entrance and no displays outside except to indicate the type of shop. The committee and the hon. Member for Hove believe that entrance should be prohibited to people under the age of 18. One can quarrel about the age but, again, that is a Committee point.

The hon. Member for Hove uses the word "indecent" and the Williams committee uses the phrase "offensive to reasonable people". The Williams committee is more restrictive. That is logical because the committee believes that such material should be displayed only in a separate shop, rather than in part of a shop which is curtained off and into which anybody can go.

Mr. Sainsbury

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that there is another major difference in that, if the Williams committee recommendations were accepted, the material found inside a shop would be different and stronger—to use a trade expression—than any material that I would like to see available anywhere?

Mr. Silkin

I am not sure about that. It depends on what is offensive to reasonable people. We can argue about that in Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman at least will agree, although he uses the term "indecent" faute de mieux, perhaps, in his Bill, the Williams committee believes that that term is unsatisfactory, as is the word "obscene." The definition in the Williams committee is one on which we can work. The committee wanted to prohibit some material altogether. In principle, none of us would disagree with the distinction between material which should be restricted and that which should be prohibited. Indeed, the hon. Member for Hove recognised and accepted that distinction in his Bill. The distinction has also been recognised and accepted in the speeches in the House today.

We might differ about the precise boundaries of what should be prohibited because it is so harmful. I take the same broad view that the Williams committee takes. I see no difficulty in the Government introducing legislation which gives general effect to that view. Of course, we can differ about the precise boundaries but we can deal with it in Committee.

My speech has been longer than I intended because of a number of interventions. The logic of the approach, which in general seems to have the consensus of those who gave evidence and of the House so far, is the distinction between restriction and prohibition, the boundaries of which we can discuss in Committee. There is little disagreement about how the matter should be put into operation. The Williams committee suggested that there should be a form of control exercised locally. Many people will agree that this is precisely the type of matter over which local control is desirable. It is for the elected representatives of the people in a particular area to decide on the availability of sex shops that are a natural result of the recommendations on restriction contained in the report.

The Minister may differ over precise details in the committee's findings. He may differ on the power of local authorities to decide the number of sex shops and where they should be located. I sympathise with that view. To some extent, we are dealing with matters akin to planning. However, the issue goes beyond planning. It enters into deeper fields such as nuisance to the neighbourhood. It is not so different from the situation that arose over the need for dual control of planning and the proliferation of caravan sites. A Conservative Government introduced that dual control. It worked well. I would have thought that dual control in this field would work equally well. I am not, of course, equating caravan sites with sex shops. I am equating the types of control that can be exercised.

I can see the argument for a separate study of films. I have general sympathy for the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax that a system that has grown up in a haphazard way but which, on the whole, works, can be left largely as it is, although some changes undoubtedly need to be made. I share her reservations about setting up a statutory body if a voluntary body is working in a reasonably satisfactory manner.

I suggest only that it is an area that could be included in legislation covering changes suggested by the Williams committee in the categorisation of films and perhaps changes in the composition of the board on which the Government, I hope, would have some influence.

I hope that the Minister, in his reply, will be more forthcoming about the future. I do not criticise the hon. and learned Gentleman for being cautious in his opening speech. His duty was to listen rather than to announce decisions. I hope that he is able to say that legislation of a comprehensive nature will be introduced within the next year or two to deal with a long standing problem that creates difficulties not only for Law Officers but also for members of the public and for those concerned with the production and dissemination of material, often on the border line, who really do not know what will be its effect and whether it will be within the law.

11.33 am
Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

I am delighted that we have had an opportunity to consider the Williams report and also to debate whether it is right for the House to legislate. There have been some excellent speeches, including those by the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury), whose Indecent Displays (Control) Bill is almost ready for the statute book.

I should like to discuss the background to the issue to show the inherent difficulties in which the Government and the Home Office have found themselves. About 10 years ago my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I convened a group of Conservative lawyers to examine the problem of soft and hard porn. We reported just before Lord Longford reported. Hon. Members will recall the tremendous brouhaha that arose over Lord Longford's report. It aroused much excitement at the time. The country, unlike the House of Commons, is very serious about the subject. In the Isle of Thanet, we discuss, at times, little else. It is a matter of considerable importance that we should not pervert modern society.

It is idle to think that this is not a matter on which there is an overwhelming opinion that something should be done. The problem that faces the Government is "What is something?" In particular, the question arises "How do you do it?"

Our report was eventually submitted to the late Reggie Maudling, who was Home Secretary at the time. He was told categorically by the Home Office that the definition that we had laid down for hard pornography was not good enough. Our definition related, in effect, to matters that would be grossly offensive to the public. It also dealt with acts of violence. I shall not give further credence to the definition that we proposed because it was dismissed as inadequate. A: the same time, we were told that the Home Office and others were unable to find any tightly drawn definition that would be sufficient to prohibit hard pornography. That position, I believe, still obtains.

I agree with the first recommendation of the Williams report, that the law needs to be comprehensively amended and a new statute laid. I also agree with the second recommendation that the terms "deprave and corrupt" and "obscene" are inadequate and unsatisfactory. I agree that the word "indecent" is no use when one is dealing with hard porn. It is the best and also a perfectly adequate word for dealing with the question of public nuisance in matters of indecent display. It was intended exclusively for that purpose. I recall that the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich did not agree with the view that I expressed and that he preferred the words "grossly offensive" that I had originally written into my report. I resiled on that wording and became converted to the idea of the word "indecent". However, the word is intended only to deal with the public nuisance aspect of indecent displays as they affect the public at large.

The problem primarily being discussed today is that of hard pornography and the action to be taken to make the law effective in that regard. It is idle for the Government to say that, because the present law is inadequate and cannot be properly enforced, they can sit back and say that they will do nothing. The Government have a duty to make effective the law that they intend to put on the statute book. For that reason, I believe that we must try to find a way to deal with the written word.

I am strongly opposed to the Williams report recommendation that a complete free-for-all should be allowed over the written word. The sixth recommendation states: The printed word should be neither restricted nor prohibited since its nature makes it neither immediately offensive nor capable of involving the harms we identify, and because of its importance in conveying ideas. I disagree with that. I made an intervention on the point during the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich.

I agree on this point with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with Williams and with the greatest work on the subject, a tome which is called the report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography which was published in America some years ago. That is the chef d'oeuvre on pornography. I agree that there is no positive evidence that harm, in the sense of harm making a person have a greater criminal propensity, is generally identified. There are occasional cases in which it is claimed that a youth, having seen a rape, and because he wants to copy it, goes out and does so. The general disintegration of the mind creating criminal propensity is not proved.

I do not accept that that is the right test. I agree that it is not right in the twentieth century to follow what Lord Mansfield said in 1778, that in Parliament we are the protectors, contra bonos mores et decorum, of the morals of society and that the King's court has that duty. Let us remember that it was in 1962, in a case in the Lords in which I was involved as counsel, that we were told by Lord Simonds that today the courts still regard themselves as the protectors of the morals of the people of this country.

I do not believe that that is the correct attitude. On the other hand, if the insidious disease of pornography continues to spread, I believe that it will go a long way towards what one could properly call the pollution of the mind. The pollution of the mind means that the standards of decency of society are affected. If people persistently have the opportunity to read and discuss pornography and hard porn, that is bound to affect our civilisation. It is on the basis that it is debasing the civilisation of Britain that I am primarily opposed to it. The written word is part of it, but we are now entering the new world, the world of the video recorder and the video cassette, which is an infinitely more dangerous aspect for the future.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, difficult as it is to measure pollution of the mind, one can obtain some guidance from the incidence of sex crimes? If the incidence of sex crimes is not such as to show that there is a correlation between dissemination of this material and sex crimes, at least that is no evidence that that material pollutes the mind.

Mr. Rees-Davis

I accept a good deal of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said, but I am arguing that we should not test that entirely against crime. I am arguing that with regard to the pollution of the mind, the standard of behaviour of civilised people is being reduced. It is proper to be able to apply that test of civilisation, although I am not going so far as to say that nowadays we have to be the custodians of the morals of British people.

I shall go beyond what I call ordinary morals. In October, in two or three months' time, there will be promoted in this country, with immeasurable success, the latest type of video recorder. It will be available for £500. It will be possible to put two operas on one record. It will be possible to put four or five films on almost one record. Therefore, it will be possible to obtain soon video recorders to show coloured films for the home with the greatest of ease.

How will that situation be contained? Will it and can it be contained? Two things must be done. First, we can use a useful part of recommendation 7 of Williams in dealing with the written word, but not for the purpose for which the committee laid down the recommendation. It referred to material to be restricted, which 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". That sort of definition can be looked at by the Home Secretary and could be introduced to deal with books and written material.

I agreed with the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) when she said that films should be dealt with separately. With due respect, what she was talking about was old hat. We can control the old type of film. I am not particularly worried about the small clubs in the West End which produce special films for a small group, largely of men, which wants to attend them. What concerns us, and what should concern the House, is the grossly hard porn being produced in Germany and Holland in the form of films on video cassette. It is an immense industry. How will that be stopped? I believe that the Government will have to consider the matter.

The best control at the moment is Customs control. The seizure by the Customs of that class of material is our most effective form of control. Will we allow the police to be able to have warrants to go into a private house to see whether material which is grossly pornographic is being exhibited? One can easily say that all films that are produced for sale should go through the same net. However, a large number will be totally illegal. Those which are produced and go either through the Sony system or the other system of producing cassettes could be shown and could be produced in order to be shown in the same way as films. That is one way of looking at the problem.

Unless one tightens up the seizure by Customs, a large quantity of that material will also be imported or home made. How will that be dealt with? As far as I am aware, no one has yet given consideration to that problem. Is the House prepared to say that where there is evidence that explicit films are being shown in a private house by way of video cassettes it will allow a warrant to be issued so that the house can be raided and the premises taken? That is going a long way. I believe that it is an almost insoluble problem. I would not wish to see the invasion of a private home because people were using cassettes.

I do not believe that we can go so far as to prevent people, if they so wish, from seeing films, however, explicit, in their homes, but we should do our level best to ensure that the country is not flooded with heavy pornographic material from overseas. By stopping it at the distribution end, we should also take action against not only the promoters but also the distributors of the material in this country.

That means that we must go back to the first position. We need an explicit definition to cover the written material and a separate definition to cover films, cassettes and so on. Having laid down the latter definition, we must then say that the making, production and distribution of the material is unlawful and subject to seizure. Let us not get into the tangle of imposing sentences of imprisonment, but, instead, make sure that the impounding of the material and the imposition of substantial fines is the method used to gain control.

Many of my hon. Friends wish to speak, so I shall soon conclude. We must open our minds now. It is a pity that members of the Labour Party are absent from the debate, with the exception of, literally, the two experts we have heard, and one more delight to follow. It is equally surprising that, apart from them, there is not one Social Democrat, Liberal, Irishman or anyone else on the Opposition Benches. We have a fine crew of experts on the Tory Benches. Strangely enough, the public is probably more interested in this subject than in any other discussed this week. I hope that the paucity of attendance will not hide the quality of those who have attended.

I hope that all my hon. Friends will apply their minds to reaching a definition that gets the Government off the hook and enables them to come forward with legislation and to finding ways in which we can stop the country being polluted by a flood of material, having regard to the great technological changes. If we can produce such recommendations, the debate will have been well worth the effort.

11.52 am
Mr. John Ryman (Blyth)

I congratulate those who have spoken on their valuable contributions on a difficult topic. I shall be brief, as I want to make only two points.

First, I agree with those who, like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin), have expressed surprise that the Government have not given a specific indication of when legislation is likely to implement some of the Williams recommendations. The tenor of the debate so far is that we all recognise the difficulty of the problem but that the present law, as Williams says, is unsatisfactory and amendment is required. The problem is what sort of new law should be introduced in the reasonably near future to deal with the difficulties.

I concur with the recommendations of that very distinguished committee at paragraph 13.4, which states: The existing variety of laws in this field should be scrapped and a comprehensive new statute should start afresh … Terms such as 'obscene', 'indecent' and 'deprave and corrupt' should be abandoned as having outlived their usefulness". In passing, I pay tribute to the Common Serjeant, his honour Judge John Leonard, one of the most distinguished judges at the Central Criminal Court, who was a valuable member of the committee.

However, I foresee immense difficulties—and I well understand the Government's view—in introducing legislation that is enforceable by the police and the Customs with a reasonable degree of effectiveness. The present position is totally unsatisfactory. Dozens of cases are brought under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, and a huge amount of police time is wasted. Until recently, the Director of Public Prosecutions had to spend an immense amount of time considering the cases, although the practice has now changed and local police authorities can deal with them themselves without reference to the DPP. There is an immense amount of evidence to that effect from senior police officers in the Metropolitan district and throughout the country.

A huge amount of police time is wasted in keeping observation, seizing material, wading through it and presenting it to the court, and the police know full well that, as soon as one shop is raided and one batch of material is seized, another shop will open up around the corner, disguised as a tobacconist or sweetshop, which incidentally sells hard porn under the counter or in the back room. New legislation must be introduced, but there is no point in doing so unless the Government recognise the difficulties in enforcing it effectively without imposing too great a burden on the police and the prosecuting authorities.

The hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) highlighted the specific problem of the evil perpetrated by foreign imports, principally from Scandinavia, Germany, Denmark and Holland, which export hard porn on a huge scale. The films, books and magazines are sold at immense profit to the proprietors or promoters. Occasionally, Customs officers seize a quantity, and, occasionally, after repeated complaints, perhaps from a member of the public, or through the establishment of a connection between organised crime and pornography in an area such as Soho, police raids occur.

What is the Government's thinking on the enforceability of a new law on obscenity? Whatever legal definitions are prescribed by legislation, how can they be more effectively policed and enforced than the present law? The reality is that the present law is not being enforced, although every now and then we have a token prosecution when there is an outcry about a particular area. The evidence all shows that there is a link between pornography and organised crime, just as there is between betting and prostitution and organised crime. The authorities and chief police officers throughout the country fully appreciate that. However, very little can be done as the law stands to enforce the obscene publications legislation. I hope that the Minister will tell us what plans the Government have in mind, if any, to remedy that deplorable state of affairs.

I was horrified some weeks ago when another Minister of State at the Home Office—not the Minister who is present today—said that the Home Secretary was considering the question of licensed sex shops in the Greater London area. That seems to me to be a deplorable concept, and I hope that it will not be introduced in any form whatever. The licensing of sex shops, in the London area or anywhere else, like the betting and gaming legislation of 1960 and 1963, would cast a veneer of respectability upon a thoroughly disreputable type of organisation, and would encourage its growth.

Mr. Rees-Davies

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, if possible, we should first have planning control over sex shops by putting into the Town and Country Planning Use Classes Order a specific proviso to that effect? A Minister at the Department of the Environment has said that that cannot be done. If that is so, how are we to achieve control over the sex shops which now represent a serious incursion not only in Soho but in other cities and, indeed, throughout the country?

Mr. Ryman

I entirely agree. It is a very difficult problem. I recognise that straight away. My argument at this point is that the answer is not the legal licensing of these establishments, because if they are licensed in a legal form through the machinery of a licensing court or any other form of licensing authority, there will inevitably be growth in the industry, just as a growth in cash betting followed the 1960 and 1963 betting and gaming legislation.

There would be an inevitable increase in the number of sex shops, because the public would begin to believe that, if these places were licensed with the official approbation of the GLC or a committee set up under some planning authority, they were legal and therefore they must be all right. The use would therefore increase. I fully recognise the difficulty of the problem, but I am convinced that the answer is not some form of official licensing. I shall be most interested to hear the Minister's views on this very difficult problem.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

Will my hon. Friend give his own views on this? It seems to me that there are three possibilities—to leave things as they are, which is generally regarded as unsatisfactory, to introduce some form of control by licensing, or to have total prohibition. Which of these does my hon. Friend advocate?

Mr. Ryman

I am not advocating any of those three courses at the moment. I am simply stating the problem and suggesting to the Government the kind of consideration that they should bear in mind in their thinking about future legislation. I do not suggest for a moment that the problem is easy; nor do I necessarily accept my right hon. and learned Friend's suggestion that there are only three avenues of solving it. Certainly, I do not want to leave things as they are. I am simply stating the problem to discover the Government's thinking on it.

I earnestly urge upon the Government that they cannot allow the present position to continue. The law on obscenity is being brought into disrepute every day. Those making vast profits out of pornographic literature and obscene material, whether on film or on videotape, are laughing at the law. If they are prosecuted and convicted, they face fines which are derisory, having regard to the profitability of their businesses.

I agree with the point made earlier that the answer may well be to increase the powers of the Commissioners of Customs and Excise under the Customs and Excise legislation to enable customs officers more easily to seize material coming into the country, as that is the principal source of pornographic material in this country. The vast majority is manufactured and produced abroad, in Western Europe and Scandinavia or in America. Customs and Excise officials know that perfectly well. They know that it comes in, and in what quantities, but at the moment they are often powerless to do anything about it.

In that way the burden upon the police would be reduced. At the moment, the police have the invidious task of having to wade through all this material, wasting a great deal of time and manpower, prosecuting people who, if convicted, are given a derisory fine by a magistrates' court. I therefore ask the Minister to tell us his views about enforcement.

I do not wish to take up any more time except to say that I have the impression that some of the speeches on this matter have been rather academic. I wish to inject a note of realism. I believe that it is quite impossible to solve the problem simply by analysing statistics and listening to theories from eminent people such as psychiatrists, social reformers and others of that kind. Indeed, I believe that it is very dangerous to form a specific policy on the basis of such academic argument.

The reality is that a burning problem exists which the Government must face. I am appalled at the paucity of hon. Members attending the debate. I know that feeling in the country about this matter is very strong. Feeling in the Churches is also very strong. The country and the Churches look to the Government for action in the near future. I should like to see action by the Government on the Williams recommendations during this Parliament. I hope that the Minister will tell us what is the Government's thinking, as it is very urgently sought.

The initiative shown by the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) in presenting his Indecent Displays (Control) Bill was altogether admirable and received widespread support throughout the country among people from all political parties. The Government did a little to help the hon. Gentleman with that Bill. It would be far better if comprehensive legislation were introduced by the Government, which I am sure would have support from all parts of the House, provided that the Government can lay down a formula conforming to the Williams recommendations and at the same time explain how the formula can be enforced, difficult though that may be.

12.7 pm

Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)

I hope that the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Ryman) will forgive me if I do not follow him down the interesting avenues that he has opened up. I wish in my short contribution to make a few observations about the recommendation contained in chapter 12 of the report dealing with films and film censorship.

This part of the report has aroused considerable interest among younger people, who attend cinemas most regularly and are the most concerned with the classification system. I had the good fortune to chair a small committee of younger Conservatives, ranging in age from late teens to late twenties, which was set up precisely to comment on the recommendations of the Williams committee with regard to films. My remarks today will reflect the result of the deliberations of that small group of younger Conservatives.

First, to follow the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin), that group believed—purely subjectively, I admit—that there was a direct relationship between violence in the media and violence in society, and between the portrayal of sexual activity in pictorial and other forms and sexual offences. We accepted the Williams view that the case had not been proved either way, but we also believed that it could never be proved either way by research as this was such a subjective matter. We felt, in common, we believed, with large numbers of the population, that society believes that there is a casual relationship, and that we would in many ways rather trust society's judgment than detailed researches, especially given the nature and subjective element involved in any research.

Generally our group agreed with the Williams recommendations on film censorship, but there were certain specific differences. We completely concurred with Williams that the system of local authority censorship of films, and the legal power held by local authorities, was outmoded and largely irrelevant. The modern world of mass communications has meant that there is little regional and local difference throughout the country in terms of what is and what is not acceptable.

Further, it is unfortunate that those relatively few authorities that have seriously exercised their censorship role have done so through committees of worthy but largely elderly ladies and gentleman who are probably much out of touch with local feeling on what is and what is not acceptable.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

Does my hon. Friend accept that many of them never go to the cinema?

Mr. Eggar

They go to the cinema only to see films that they believe are contentious. I believe, however, that one or two films have been banned by viewing committees whose members have not seen the films. It is a curious situation.

If the legal powers of local authorities to take action are to be removed, a decision must be made on the basis of film censorship. The present system is in law exercised through local authorities, but in effect and in practice it is exercised through the present non-statutory film authority. We felt—reluctantly, I have to admit—that because of the need for a legal censorship system we would have to accept the Williams recommendations to go for a statutory film examining board. We understood reluctance of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State to establish another quango, but we felt that in all the circumstances there should be a statutory body which should be centrally organised and orchestrated, and that the establishment of such a body was inevitable if local authority powers were to be abolished.

We were deeply concerned by the Williams committee's recommendations about the membership of that statutory body. The committee did not spell out the matter in detail, but we felt that since the majority of filmgoers are young people it would be important that membership of the board should specifically reflect that fact. We strongly recommended that at least three of the members—assuming that it was a 12-member board—should be under 25 and should be selected at random.

We were also concerned at the possible power that the Home Secretary would have in selecting the members of the statutory board. We felt that he should have the power to appoint only three, again assuming a 12-member board, and that of the rest three should come from the film industry and three from local authority associations. That would impose a limit on the Home Secretary's discretion.

We then went on to examine the whole area of the categorisation and classification of films. The House will be familiar with the recommendations by Williams—U, 11A, 16, 18, and 18R. We agreed with Williams that the current AA classification is most unsatisfactory. It comes into effect for children of the age of 14. That means that a fair number of films have to be classified X because they are unsuitable for those between the ages of 14 and 16 when they would have been suitable for 16-year-olds. As a result of the line being drawn at the age of 14 people of between 16 and 18 are prevented from seeing films that they should be entitled to see.

A further factor is that young people are growing up faster. Socially acceptable standards have changed since the last alteration in the classification, and the AA rating has become redundant. We were worried by the Williams recommendations on the 16 and 18 classifications because we wanted to keep the system as simple as possible to prevent anomalies and abuses. We concluded, therefore, that the division recommended by Williams between the 16 and 18 classifications was inappropriate, and that the latter could be dropped.

We recommended that the classifications should consist of U, 11A, 16—all the same as Williams—but no 18. We then had to consider the role of the 18R category. That is the category of film which could be shown only in certain designated cinemas. We found it extraordinary that Williams should have recommended that the designation of cinemas should be left to the local authorities. The committee had previously said that local authority censorship powers should effectively be removed. It was inconsistent for it then to say that they should have the power to designate cinemas. We decided against agreeing with that recommendation, but we accepted that there should be some form of limitation on films that would have the 18R classification.

Our suggestion was that 18R films could be shown in any cinemas, but that the time of showing should be restricted. We felt that no 18R films should be shown before 8 o'clock at night, and that cinemas should not be allowed to show 18R films for more than one week in three. In other words, there would be an opportunity for people over 18 to see 18R films, but it would be restricted in terms of times of showing rather than of the geographic location of the cinema.

This is a highly complex area, and we had to assess the practical effect of our recommendations. I think that they would mean that the majority of present X films would receive a 16 classification. In other words, 16-year-olds would be able to see the vast majority of X films which they are not now permitted to see. That would be right because the socially acceptable age at which X films can be viewed has, we believe, come down. In any case, young people are growing up faster. But we recognised that there were also a fair number of X films that would then come into the 18R classification—in other words, those X films could be seen only at certain times in cinemas—and that additionally certain films which in practice are shown only in cinema clubs, because they do not get an X classification, could get an 18R classification.

But equally a very high percentage, I suspect, of films at present shown only in cinema clubs would get no form of classification and would be illegal. We concurred with the Williams committee that the present role of cinema clubs was totally unacceptable, and we welcome the comments made to this effect today by my hon. and learned Friend.

Finally, it was our strong feeling that, whatever else happened with regard to the Williams committee's recommendations, the Government should act—and act quickly—on the recommendations regarding films and film classifications. We think that the present position is highly unreasonable, both in the classification of films and in the matter of cinema clubs. We look forward to legislation being introduced in this area during the next Session.

12.21 pm
Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

I wish to speak about the film side of the report of the Williams committee. As the debate has progressed, I have had growing sympathy with what my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State said about the difficulties of coming to decisions, because the longer we talk about the matter the more confused the picture seems to become. I entered the Chamber convinced that something could be done. I have now become uneasy and am wondering whether we can do anything, especially after having heard several of our lawyer Members arguing about words. I shall talk instead about some of the more practical sides of the film industry.

I have to declare an interest, in that I am a consultant to the British Film Producers Association. I shall be talking particularly about the film industry and film censorship. The history of censorship is interesting. It was the industry itself that realised that something had to be done about film censorship. The industry began in a quite seedy way as a circus act, and then as a sort of peepshow activity. It developed only gradually into the film industry. It was then realised that it would be necessary to set standards if the industry was to be recognised. It has done that with come degree of success.

The difficulties are those concerned with public taste and morals. There is an important difference between the film industry and television. Going to see a film involves making a conscious decision. With television, a family can be sitting in the room and then suddenly the programme is in front of them, and they can be exposed to anything. In the case of the cinema, of course, people are able to decide what they wish to see. There is that aspect of choice.

I want to talk about local authority participation, the suggested new film board, the suggested categories, and the clubs. Local authority participation has already been dealt with adequately, and I entirely agree with the report on that aspect. Often councillors have come to see me, and when I have asked "What committee are you on?" they have said that they were on the dirty films committee. That is an unfortunate approach to a very responsible and important job, but some councillors who take on that job tend to speak of it in that way.

There is also the tendency to put on to the film committee people with extreme views—either those who believe that everything should be shown or those who think that almost everything is disgusting and disgraceful. Often, therefore, there is not a balanced view on the committee. Most local authorities have accepted that the certificates of the British Board of Film Censors are a good maxim on which to base decisions about films.

The Williams committee has made recommendations concerning the setting up of a new board. I am not convinced that it is needed, because the British Board of Film Censors has done a remarkably good job over a long period. I agree that it seems to be self-perpetuating, but there have been changes on the board. Generally, the secretary of the board is an enlightened individual. It is usually a very good appointment. I have often heard the secretary say on radio and television that the board adopts the maxim that it should be just behind public taste and not ahead of it. That would seem to be a very good starting point, and the board has, believe, done its job in a responsible way.

I am nervous about setting up a Government quango to bring in some form of censorship. It could lead to all sorts of permutations. Hon. Members have already mentioned where it could lead if we are not careful. Perhaps the Government would consider providing a little more assistance to the British Board of Film Censors. Perhaps it could be given some guidelines or some better instructions from the Home Office as to what the Home Office would like to see. But I cannot see why the board should not go on doing the job that it has been doing so admirably.

With regard to categories, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar) that the old system of U, A and X certificates was a fairly simple one that most of us understood. The new system is very confusing. It has to be remembered that although a large number of young people go to the cinema, from time to time old people also go to the cinema. They find it difficult to decide from the certificate what the film is likely to be about. That aspect requires examination.

The industry which I represent is quite keen on the proposals in the report concerning age. It is a useful way of categorising. There may be too many groups proposed, and I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the 11A group. That could be very dangerous when it is stated that children under the age of 11 should be accompanied by a responsible adult. Young children often ask an adult to take them into a cinema. Indeed, I have done it myself as a young lad. I am, therefore, concerned about that proposed category. But in general I agree—and so does my organisation—with the idea of having age barriers. It is a good suggestion.

The problem with clubs is difficult. After all, it is part of the British tradition to foster clubs. It is therefore difficult for the Government to legislate on them. However, we must consider the issue. Clubs are giving rise to great concern, particularly in London and in our cities and towns. There may be an argument for licensing them. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Ryman) to the effect that there is always a danger that the registering and licensing of such clubs may suddenly give them a respectable air. There is that hazard. However, perhaps we should license them more tightly.

I also put forward an idea, which has been promoted by the film industry, that every film should have an advisory certificate. It should be illegal to show a film in a public place unless it has been examined by a film body. The body could place an advisory certificate on the film, saying that the film was suitable only for a certain age group. That would give people some guideline as to the type of film being shown. This is not an easy subject, but we should consider club rules and the basis of clubs. Any action would affect bingo, because it works on much the same principle. We must bear in mind that if we tightened up on cinemas we would tighten up bingo activities. Therefore, there are difficulties. Nevertheless something most be done.

Several hon. Members have touched on the future and on video cassettes and discs. The Government must consider the matter seriously, as a matter of urgency. The film industry is in a complete flap, not only about pornography, but about piracy. The film producer of a well-known movie that has just come out made only five copies of the film. Only a week ago, it was reported that a copy had been found on cassette in Soho. The film has been out only two and a half months. Therefore, piracy is a serious matter. In addition, we must urgently consider the copyright laws. Otherwise, we shall probably destroy what is left of the British film industry. I am concerned about that and I am doing a lot of work with the film industry to see what suggestions I can make to the Government about how to deal with this vexed question.

The report is valuable. I am pleased that we have had the debate. Originally, I had intended to press for immediate Government action. However, having heard the speeches made by hon. Members I am not sure that we should not take things more cautiously. I am rather on the side of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister. He may have a point. This is not such an easy subject such as some of us, who look at it in a rather simplistic way, may think that it is. Therefore, I commend my hon. and learned Friend's view that we should look at the subject bit by bit and take things steadily. However, there is a feeling outside the House that the Government must come to grips with this matter.

12.31 pm
Mrs. Sheila Faith (Belper)

I welcome this chance to discuss the report and to participate in the debate. I am delighted to speak after my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant). Two weeks ago, when I took part in a phone-in for BBC Radio Derby, one of the callers asked me why I was giving so much of my attention to obscene publications. As the subject under discussion was the excellent Indecent Displays (Control) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury), I was able to tell the caller that it was only on that particular Sunday morning that I was giving all my attention to pornography. Indeed, I am well aware that the country faces many other serious problems.

However, as one of the few lady Members, I am also particularly interested in any matter that affects family life in general, and young people in particular and also—as the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) said—the status of women. I hope that when the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill has become law, people will be more protected from indecent display as they go about their ordinary business. I also hope that there will be more protection for young people in respect of pornographic literature. Newsagents will understand that Parliament, in giving encouragement to the Bill, has demonstrated the true feelings of the majority of people in this country. The majority do not want to see indecent material. They do not wish young people to be given access to it.

Overall, I welcome the Williams report. Indeed, I should like to see some of its recommendations implemented as soon as possible. However, I find it difficult to agree with the committee that there is no link between sexual offences and the availability of pornographic material. Over and over again the police have found explicit material in the possession of sex criminals. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has referred to such instances. I cannot agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin). Although sex crimes may not have increased as fast as ordinary crimes, they have increased alarmingly and cause great concern. Of course, I do not believe that everyone who reads such magazines will become a criminal. I would go so far as to admit that some inhibited people may find them an outlet and even a safety valve, and that their availability may have contributed to a decrease, in some countries, in minor offences, such as those committed by exhibitionists and peeping Toms.

Dr. Court's submission to the committee was not given completely fair consideration. He has said that there is evidence that since the pornography laws in Australia were relaxed, serious sexual offences such as rape have increased. I believe that that is so in this country. I do not think that Dr. Court's evidence was considered seriously enough and the committee went too far in expecting harmful results to be established "beyond reasonable doubt".

I cannot go along with the part of the report that concludes that only extremely hard pornography constitutes a danger. I realise that it would be difficult to legislate porn out of existence, but I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State has agreed that the written word can be dangerous, even without illustrations.

The part of the report that I particularly welcome is the section devoted to film censorship. I should like to see the changes recommended by the committee put into practice as soon as possible and given the highest priority—I refer particularly to the categorisation of films—so that it would become clear which films are not suitable for young people under 16, which are not suitable for those under 18 and which are for restricted exhibition only. I realise the difficulties of setting up another quango, but this is an important matter. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar), I believe that the age barriers are reasonable.

There is no doubt in my mind that some young people can suffer serious emotional disturbance if they are allowed to see material which they are not sufficiently emotionally mature to comprehend. I was on holiday in France a few years ago and I still remember how a 16-year-old girl sobbed uncontrollably all day after having been taken to see an explicit French film with a group of friends the night before.

As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) said, the problem is becoming increasingly difficult and is taking on a new dimension as more people are buying video cassette recorders. I understand that sales of such recorders have grown so quickly in the past few months that suppliers cannot obtain as many as they would like. More than one million families may have such machines in their homes by the end of the year, and the number is growing all the time.

I do not deplore that trend. I welcome the fact that it will encourage people to look to their own homes for entertainment, but we must all agree that the record demand for videos is astonishing during a recession. Demand in the United Kingdom is at least equal to that in the United States and West Germany, and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West has told us that there will soon be even cheaper machines in the shops.

The worrying aspect of that growth is that adult films and violent films can be obtained both from shops selling video cassettes and, perhaps more worryingly, by mail order. I have seen cassettes advertised for as little as £7.50 for a 30-minute tape showing extracts from several explicit films. One can imagine a group of young people joining together to buy such tapes, and they could easily be shown at a teenage party and cause embarrassment or worse to a number of the young people present.

I should, therefore, like to point to the recommendation of the Williams committee that prohibited material should not be sent through the post, and I should like to see the definition of prohibited material extended to any category of film which is considered unsuitable for young people under 16. I have seen many advertisements for such films in magazines that encourage people to write in and purchase them, asking purchasers to state that they are over 18. Obviously there is no proper safeguard.

We hope that the many shops that sell video equipment and tapes will act responsibly in this matter, but it is a matter of urgency that young people should not be able to obtain such films through the post. I hope that that aspect will be looked into as soon as possible and that some Government action will be taken.

We have had an excellent and interesting debate. I know that no one wants unnecessary restrictions in legislation. Perhaps mature people can make their own judgments on whether to degrade themselves by reading porn and watching debasing rubbish and thus polluting their minds. But we must all agree that it is the Government's duty to protect our young people.

12.40 pm
Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the Williams report on obscenity and film censorship. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mrs. Faith) will forgive me if I develop my own argument.

Today's debate and the report raise fundamental questions of personal liberty to which the House should address itself. In a free country, every citizen must have the fundamental right to see, read or do in private what he or she likes, with only one proviso, which is that no harm is done to anyone else. Herein lies the great difficulty of definition.

All sorts of people get up to all sorts of activities these days which are often regarded as perverse, but I do not believe that we have any business interfering with them. In 1859, John Stuart Mill wrote in his "Essay on Liberty" that no conduct should be suppressed by law unless it could be shown to harm someone. This principle is as valid today as it was then.

For this House to decide what individuals may or may not do in private is not only arrogant, because it presupposes some superior knowledge, but, more importantly, a gross infringement of personal liberty. It is one step along the road towards the "Big Brother is watching you" syndrome through the television screen in George Orwell's "1984". Indeed, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) hinted at this development when he talked about the police being given wider powers to enter people's homes to see what the television video recorder was presenting to those in those homes.

Therefore, I do not believe that the House should approach the subject of pornography and obscenity from a moral standpoint. We have no business in deciding what is right and what is wrong for individuals to be doing. That is a matter for the individual's conscience and not for the House.

I turn briefly to the assertions made by some people that pornography tends to deprave and corrupt and that the proliferation of pornography results in increased sexual offences. The Williams committee investigated these assertions and dealt with them in great detail in chapter 6 of its report.

First, there is the anecdotal evidence. Not surprisingly, the defence in the trials of a number of sex criminals has ascribed the commission of the crimes to the influence of pornography. Perhaps the most notorious recent example is that of the Cambridge rapist. But in that case the offender was a man with a long history of mental disturbance and criminal activity, with psychotic tendencies evident from an early age. He had shown an interest in pornography, but there was nothing to suggest that the method which he had chosen to use in committing his offences owed anything to the pornography that he had seen or that he would not have committed the offences had it not been for the influence of pornography.

The Williams committee discussed the assertion that pornography leads to sex crimes with a number of psychiatrists and psychologists, including some with special experience of the treatment of offenders. Not one of those experts was able to think of a case in which there was evidence of a casual link between pornography and violent sex crime.

A number of doctors, including Dr. Gallwey of the Portman clinic, maintained that the effects of pornography were often beneficial rather than harmful.

Apparently, it can help to relieve sexual and aggressive tensions and, in particular, a sense of exclusion which is often a characteristic of sexual offenders.

Even if a case could be found where pornography was the cause of a sexual offence, it would be treading into very deep water to attempt to outlaw pornography on that basis. The film "The Deer Hunter" would have to be banned because a boy shot himself playing Russian roulette after seeing the film, not to mention those children who have killed themselves jumping out of windows thinking that they were Batman or Superman.

However, there is another side to the freedom coin. While people should be able to do what they like in private, this should not be foisted on to everyone else. At present our environment is polluted by magazine covers, posters, photographs and the like to which many people object and which they find offensive and indecent. I believe that the Government have a duty to protect the freedom of their citizens. To my mind, the flagrant public displays of pornography in particular places which the public now have to put up with are an unjustified imposition on the personal liberty of many people.

The great libertarian John Stuart Mill maintained that there ought to exist a certain minimum area of freedom for everyone. Although he never to my knowledge mentioned it, I have no doubt that he would have regarded the sorts of thing that we have to see today as an infringement on this minimum area of freedom.

I hope and expect that the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) will make some inroads into solving this problem. The problems presented by pornography are essentially environmental. Many sex shops, sex cinemas and sauna establishments concentrated in one small area contribut to the general sleaziness of the area. Hon. Members whose constituencies are in the central areas of our major cities, in particular London, will be aware of this. In one area of my constituency and in the City of Westminster there are now about a dozen sex shops and several hard porn cinemas.

It is very distressing for people living in residential areas suddenly to find that the downstairs paper shop or the butcher's shop where they could expect a friendly welcome and meet neighbours has turned into a hard porn cinema. The Climax cinema in St. Michael's Street, Paddington, for example, has been operating without permission for change of use for nearly two years. The sex industry is like a slug. It leaves a trail of slime behind it. The whole atmosphere of a residential area can change.

Takeovers by the sex industry are happening more and more. It is a multi-million pound industry. There are large sums of money to be made and severe weaknesses exist in the current planning legislation for making it easy for sex shops to slip through the net. Under the Town and Country Planning Act 1972 retail premises are not classified separately. No special licences are required for the selling of pornographic material. Enforcement action cannot be taken until a contravention has occurred, so residents must 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.

I have considerable experience of law enforcement. As a magistrate in inner London, I became convinced that the best way to control the sex industry was not through the courts or through the expensive resources of the police service. I was well aware of the difficulties facing the courts when they were asked to decide whether publications were obscene. It is an impossible situation. The most effective way to curb the proliferation of the sex industry in residential areas is by giving additional powers to local councils.

It should be an offence for shops to engage in certain activities without first obtaining clearance from the local planning authority. In this way residents would, through their representatives on the council, be able to protect their local environment. Moreover, difficult decisions by the courts and the involvement of the criminal law would be unnecessary. Therefore, I believe that the Town and Country Planning Act 1972 should be amended to give councils the opportunity to exercise control over the change of use of retailing outlets to prevent the spread of pornographic shops in residential areas.

Although the amendments that I have suggested would assist in achieving more effective enforcement of the existing law, they are unlikely to provide the total solution to the problem of controlling pornography in environmental terms. I am saddened that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment seem so reluctant to go down this road.

I think that some specific legislation is desirable. The Indecent Displays (Control) Bill is therefore to be welcomed as making a contribution. However, it deals only with the display aspect of the problem. Other matters include the number of such premises in a locality, particularly where they already exist without infringing current planning legislation, whether the proprietors are fit—

Mr. S. C. Silkin

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the difficulties is that it deals only with that which is indecent and that the law attaches to the word "indecent" a meaning which is more restrictive for many of the things which offend ordinary people walking along our streets?

Mr. Wheeler

That is a valid point.

In this area the legislation that the House proposes and considers can go only part of the way to produce a solution. Nevertheless, some solution is at least a contribution to this difficult environmental problem. The other matters that have to be catered for in legislation include whether proprietors of sex shops are fit and proper persons for such businesses and the mode of operation.

If these aspects are to be controlled, a licensing system would seem to be necessary. In current circumstances, such a system should avoid labour-intensive procedures. Sanctions operating against property on the lines of leasehold forfeiture provisions or closure provisions might achieve such an objective. Not only would this have the advantage of making operators reveal themselves, but it could be a sufficient deterrent to ensure that licences are applied for before activities commence. The power to impose conditions on such licenses, together with a substantial fee, would be necessary.

Following discussions among my hon. Friend the Member for the City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), representatives of the community and council of the City of Westminster and the Home Secretary, significant progress has been achieved towards this objective. The London Boroughs Association has now accepted the representations of the council of the City of Westminster that there should be a licensing system, at least in London, and that legislation will be proposed to the Greater London Council for inclusion in the next Greater London Council general powers Bill.

I pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State and officials at the Home Office who have been particularly helpful to the City of Westminster council in drafting the licensing legislation. I hope that before the year is out such legislation will be proposed to the House. That, I believe, is part of the solution.

The Indecent Displays (Control) Bill, to a large extent, will deal with public display. The right of the citizen to walk down a street and not be affronted by something which is regarded by most people as indecent is as important a freedom as the freedom to do what one likes within the privilege of one's own home—to see what one likes, to think what one likes and to read what one likes.

Equally, the community has every right to expect that its immediate neighbourhood will not be changed by the sex industry moving in to occupy premises because it is able to produce the significant sums necessary to pay the rent and the rates. The licensing measures to be proposed in the near future will make an essential contribution to meeting the needs of the people in Central London in particular.

12.56 pm
Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) will forgive me if I do not agree with his quotation from John Stuart Mill. He was an eminent philosopher but he held to a nineteenth century Liberal concept which has been bypassed by contemporary values and events. However, I shall return to him because to some extent his thoughts acted as a foundation stone for the Williams committee report.

During the debate I asked myself why the then Home Secretary set up the Williams committee. Perhaps he was sufficiently concerned about the state of the law to believe that he needed an impartial examination of it by a group of expert or highly educated people. Alternatively, perhaps the Home Office worried so much about the law that whenever it was put under pressure by those of us who believed that things could be done, sought refuge in setting up a committee of inquiry to spend many years examining the subject, as Governments have done so often in the past. While such committees exist, they take the heat off the Department involved.

I hope that the Minister will forgive me for saying that his words seemed to add credence to my thoughts. I recognise the difficulties. However, I do not believe that one can ask a committee of respectabe and responsible people to spend as much time as the Williams committee did in looking at the problems of obscenity, indecency, pornography and film censorship with a view to considering the current laws, and then put its work on the shelf as no more or less than a work of reference.

I recognise that this is a hugely controversial subject. It is clear from today's speeches that we are all concerned about what has happened to our country as a result of the spread of pornography, the attitudes to obscenity and indecency which the law has taken in recent years, and generally, about the moral health of our nation.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury). He is about to put on the statute book legislation that will be the first step in turning back the progress of unlicensed display and pornography that we have had to suffer since 1959. As a number of hon. Members have remarked, the Williams report informs us, in one succinct sentence, that "the law, in short, is a mess". Paragraph 2.29 on page 19 qualifies that statement by saying: The law is scattered among so many statutes, and these so often overlap with each other and with the various common law offences and powers which still exist in this field, that it is a complicated task even to piece together a statement of what the law is, let alone to attempt to wrestle with or to resolve the inconsistencies and anomalies to which it gives rise". That statement, in itself, seems to me to place a heavy burden on the Home Office. If, having set up a committee to look at the state of the law, it is told that the law is in a muddled state and in a mess, I do not see how the Department can sit back and leave the situation where it is. Even a consolidation measure to bring those laws into one broadly explicable group of legislation would be something. However bearing in mind that it now has this mighty tome to support its efforts, the Home Office will surely agree that a consolidation measure would be a feeble way out of a problem that no hon. Member has attempted to say does not exist.

Mr. Lawrence

Not only would it be feeble, but it would also be impossible, to consolidate the morass of conflicting legislation that covers this subject.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I respect what my hon.. and learned Friend says and concur with his statement.

At the beginning of my speech I took up the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington and his references to John Stuart Mill. There are references to John Stuart Mill in the committee's report, to the extent that it contains extracts from his writings that the committee believes to be a correct and profound statement on the subject of the freedom of the individual to see or read what he wishes. The report draws upon Mill's work "Essay on Liberty" written in 1859 stating that we do not know in advance what social, moral or intellectual developments will turn out to be possible, necessary or desirable for human beings and for their future, and free expression, intellectual and artistic…is essential to human development. Initially, it is difficult to quarrel with those words. One might say that the words stand the test of time. On reflection, however, bearing in mind that they were written 130 years ago, I wonder whether they are as accurate as they sound. At the time, John Stuart Mill wrote those words, there were no films, no popular press, no broadcasting and no television. There were none of the mass media as we now know them, that reach out to every section of the populace. What the community of 1859 possessed in terms of education was, by and large, rudimentary, to say the least.

The words: we do not know in advance what social, moral or intellectual developments will turn out to be possible, necessary or desirable for human beings may have had a certain truth in 1859 that I do not think they possess in 1981. To use those words as a justification for what follows in the report makes me wonder whether the report has not been built on a doubtful premise. We have mass communications. We know that such a thing as propaganda exists. We know that propaganda, the sustained statement of certain values and ideas, can have catastrophic effects.

If I wanted to call in aid any historical fact to back my words, I would quote the Nazi German view of where the Jewish race belonged in Western Europe and how those values perpetrated by the Nazis ended up in the death of 6 million Jewish people. Surely that is the historic fact which has to be explained away by anyone who dares to suggest that propaganda does not have an effect.

Therefore, if it be true that, as a result of propaganda, one can manipulate people's minds to accept certain values and ideas, why should we suppose that the same thing cannot happen in terms of their moral values or in terms of their attitudes one towards another? We accept that that is so because we have legislation which makes it illegal to stir up racial hatred. We do not restrict that legislation to what appears on television or in films. We specifically state that that which is written is also prohibited. Therefore, if we agree that propaganda has an effect and if we categorise certain types of propaganda as illegal, why do we not draw the same conclusion about sexist propaganda, for that is what pornography is?

By the same token, why does the Home Office find it so difficult to accept that there is such a thing as sexist propaganda? It knows as well as I do that since the passing of the Obscene Publications Act 1959, a wave of pornography such as our nation has never known has swept across it and that that wave has not yet come to an end.

In that situation, we have to recognise that the moral values of our nation have been attacked by that sexist propaganda to an unremitting extent. As the Williams report says, that may all be true, but how will one prove that that propaganda is all that one says it is, that it is not really water off a duck's back and counter the argument that after a certain amount of time the nation will get used to it, and it will have no more than a peripheral influence on the nation's thinking' Perhaps Williams is borrowing from Stuart Mill when he says that there is a right to free expression, a presumption in favour of it, and weighty considerations in terms of harm have to be advanced by those who seek to curtail it.

We all know that it is virtually impossible to prove absolute cause and effect. It is a little like tobacco advertising and the argument whether cigarettes cause cancer. There is a 99 per cent. presumption, but no one has managed to find the 1 per cent. which makes the argument conclusive. On the other hand, because there is so much evidence in that direction, we at least print on cigarette packets a warning that cigarettes may harm one's health. We have not got round to doing that on certain magazines, but I am not sure that we should not be thinking in that direction.

If we are told that it is so difficult to prove cause and effect or that pornography does harm, how is it possible for a book which is called "Portrayal of Violence on Television—BBC and IBA Guidelines", published in February 1980, to say on page 34: The regular and recurrent spectacle of violence might lead viewers to think violence in one form or another has been given the stamp of approval. Once violence is thus accepted and tolerated people will, it is believed, tend to become more callous and more indifferent to the suffering imposed on the victims of violence. In the same booklet the BBC and the IBA spell out the code of practice that they believe must be followed to ensure that that effect does not take place.

Mr. Wheeler

Does the line that my hon. Friend is pursuing mean that it is necessary to have censorship, for example, of news programmes, newspapers and news magazines. Where does one draw the line?

Mr. McNair-Wilson

Most of those responsible for great organisations such as the BBC lay down codes of practice that draw the line. I would welcome any suggestion of a code of practice to draw the line with pornography, but, in its absence, we must look to legislation.

Dr. Summerskill

Should we not separate the areas? The hon. Gentleman quotes guidelines for broadcasting, something which is not even covered by the report. The same criteria would not necessarily apply to the printed word, to displays and to films. To some extent, they must be treated separately. I believe that films should certainly be treated separately, and broadcasting does not come into our discussion today.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

That is an extremely good point. I did not quote from the document to suggest that broadcasting should be considered in the same light as all that is in Williams but to ask, if the broadcasting authorities believe that there is a causal link between what they show and the effect on those who see the programmes, why we should argue that the same does not apply to books, films, video cassettes, magazines and all the other means used to purvey the pornographic message.

Indeed, I give one more example that I hope will add strength to what I have said. As has been said, we turn to the experts for an absolute answer to our problems, when often our common sense could provide an equally good answer, and perhaps we should be more willing to give our common sense the benefit of the doubt.

At the end of the day, when one considers the Williams Committee and the pressure put on the Home Office to introduce a committee of inquiry, one suspects that one is talking about the morality of our nation. I know that Williams dismisses the concept of an absolute set of moral values and, indeed, even the religious moral values. However, I cannot help jogging back in memory to my youth, when moral values were much clearly stated.

In those years—I am talking principally about the 1930's—they were reflected in our behaviour towards each other and in our attitude to such matters as adultery, to behaviour before marriage, virginity and violence. They were reflected in the Reithian standards of the BBC—the concept that here was a means not only of communication but of improving the standards of the people of our country. They were represented in the way that the press reported the world in which we lived and in the concept in films of the society that we might aspire to. They were if one likes, a standard of conduct. They concerned propriety.

I suggest that those values endured at least until the 1950s. Without wanting to find the watershed that changed our nation's moral values from standards which, I believe, created a kinder society to the present rather avaricious one, I certainly see the Obscene Publications Act 1959 as at least one of the stones that brought about the change. When I say "stones", I should perhaps use the metaphor in terms of building a new type of structure.

I know that those who created the Obscene Publications Act 1959 believed that they were allowing a new artistic licence and that they would actually limit the spread of pornography. I respect them for the high thoughts that motivated the legislation. The fact is, however, that the Act, above all, began the pornographic industry in this country. It is therefore to that Act that we must inevitably turn in asking ourselves where all this started and how we may begin to see a way to clear up the mess.

If I seem to have overstated the case and if I now argue that that one Act has had such a profound effect upon the moral values and sexual standards of our nation, and when I am told by the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin), the former, Attorney-General, that there is no way of pointing statistical evidence to the kind of statement that I have made, I ask the House to consider two figures, both extracted from reports of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. In 1958, the year before the Obscene Publications Act, the Commissioner reported 27 cases of rape in the London area. In 1980, the last report available in the Library, the Commissioner reported 269 cases. According to my mathematics, that is a 900 per cent. increase in one crime alone.

It may be said that that would have happened anyway, but every one of us has to ask why that has come about. What has happened to produce a 900 per cent. increase in rape figures? What motivated the rapist to that extent in 1980 which did not motivate him in 1958? To me, at least, one answer is that we live in a society permeated by pornography.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

I think that the hon. Member and I are about the same age. I do not recognise the scene that he sets, except that the type of books and material now on the counter was under the counter before 1959. Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that pornography under the counter is better than pornography that is more available? Does he wish to go back to the pre-1959 situation? Certainly I found, as no doubt he did, that much the same material was available when I was at school and university if one wished to obtain it. It was merely available in an underhand rather than an open way.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I wish to make no aspersions at all, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I never saw a pornographic magazine before 1959. Such material may have been available, but I did not seek it and it did not come my way. I am prepared to accept that I must have lived in a very safe, narrow world in which such things did not flow through my hands, whereas the hon. Gentleman may have lived in a different kind of world, in which they did. Nevertheless, I never saw such material. To me, at least, therefore, until 1959, pornography was something which people might have talked about, although not much, but not something that I had ever seen. I do not think that I am totally unrepresentative of many millions of people in this country. In so far as it matters, I am 50 years old, so if the hon. Gentleman is 50 years old we are indeed the same age. I make that point because I do not believe that pornography was available to any real extent at that time. There may have been those who sought it, but they were a tiny minority. I do not believe that it played a major part in people's moral standards or in their thinking about morality or sexual relations.

I accept, of course, when I talk about the Obscene Publications Act as representing the breaking of the dam which started the pornographic flood, that other factors such as the pill and the availability of abortion have helped. Nevertheless, the permissive society was a feature of the 1960s, and the Obscene Publications Act was passed in 1959. I believe that the two things run together.

Perhaps I may sum it all up by quoting the words spoken last night on a Thames Television programme by an 18-year old police cadet who said: One of the main things I think is important is the difference between right and wrong—that seems to be lacking nowadays. That is what I am really talking about. I have suggested that there was a morality in the 1930s. I am not sure that there is any morality left today. To some extent, at least, the pornography industry has contributed to the breaking down of those values.

Pornography is the sexual arousal industry. If people's sexual desires are aroused those people usually seek gratification. People stick their heads in the sand if they believe that this great industry can churn out its dirty books, week in and week out, without having any effect on moral values and sexual relationships. They fail to notice something that for me stands out clearly.

It is easy to imagine that pornography—the sort of material that Williams has written about—is isolated to certain parts of our great cities, that it stays in Soho, and that, apart from indecent displays of magazines in sweet shops, it does not permeate into society. Whether the magazines permeate far into society or not, something else permeates through from the fact that that industry exists. It is a change in the standards seen in the theatre, in alms and in the popular press. Therefore the ripples from the pornographic industry run out into all branches of the media, which to some extent, influence our lives. What the pornography industry is getting away with today will, I believe, affect standards of presentation of the media tomorrow.

I see it in that insidious way. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove spoke of the drip effect. There is a gradual reduction of the standard. One cannot remembel where one started, and people feel that today's standard must be accepted because nobody seems to be doing anything about it. That process has eaten away at the values and the moral standards of our nation. It is on that aspect that I find the defence of pornography so incomprehensible.

Therefore, unless we are prepared to sit back, to say "What is this pornography industry that people get so worked up about? Why should we worry about a few dirty books?"—and I do not think that many of us can do that—we have to recognise that we have in our midst a propaganda industry that has already damaged the moral health of the nation, and which, if we do not curb it, will continue to do so.

That is why I ask my hon. and learned Friend to convey to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary my personal view that not only should we welcome the Williams report, but that we should be willing to act upon it. Whether we do so in a global or a piecemeal way does not seem to matter half as much as doing something.

1.25 pm
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) on a fluent and admirable speech on moral standards and values. I intend to refer to the involvement of local authorities in film censorship.

I have two reservations about the Williams report. The first concerns the committee's apparent inability to recognise and acknowledge the harmful effects of pornography—harmful to those who produce it, to those who use it and to society generally. I have no great knowledge of the matter, but I respect those who have.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mrs. Faith), I hope that the Government will give greater consideration than the Williams committee gave to the world-wide research of Dr. Court, as well as to the written evidence upon which his conclusions are based, and which the report, regrettably, fails to publish.

My second reservation is a complaint against the glaring omission in the committee's terms of reference, which excluded broadcasting and recording. The committee refers to this on page 2 of the report. Clearly, it felt uneasy about it, particularly in view of the weight of correspondence and evidence that it received. Since so much of what the committee was investigating is relevant in broadcasting, I am surprised that it did not suggest a broadening of its remit to include it, notwithstanding the Annan report, or that it did not have something to say about it, as it did on other issues, such as blasphemy, which were not included in its terms of reference.

The effects of broadcasting, particularly television, harmful or otherwise, on young people, are not yet fully appreciated by any of us. We need to face that fact sooner rather than later. In this respect, as in many others, I believe that Mrs. Mary Whitehouse speaks for millions of people—the majority of people in this country—when she says that a great deal of the vandalism and the violence which is increasing in our society today can fairly be put down to the effects and influence of television. We in Parliament have been running away from this fact of life for far too long, and I believe that the code of voluntary practice is not proving to be enough.

I noted that the report refers to the offence of blasphemy, although it is also the subject of a separate paper by the Law Commission. It anticipates the Law Commission's recommendation that there is no need now for a separate offence of blasphemy. I totally oppose that view. Once the law of blasphemy is abandoned, there will be a real danger that its use will become widespread, particularly on television. Even thugh the law had not been used for some 50 years until 1979, it is there, it maintains a standard, and it is based on our Judao-Christian traditions and beliefs which uphold our society. I agree with Lord Scarman, who said in the Whitehouse v. Lemon case in 1979: There is a case for legislation extending the law to protect the religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians in Britain today. I turn to the report's recommendations concerning local authorities' powers to censor films to be shown in their own areas. Like many other hon. Members in the debate, I have in the past felt the concept of local councillors taking the morning off to look at rather seedy films, in an otherwise empty cinema, to decide whether the people they represent should have the opportunity to share the same experience, to be rather a self-defeating one as well as somewhat undignified.

When a film is vetted in this way it gets plenty of free publicity to guarantee an extra audience if the committee decides that it can be shown, even though it is anyway a bad film. If the council in its wisdom decides not to allow it to be shown locally, a neighbouring council will usually take a contrary decision, with the result that many people who would otherwise not have heard of the film will feel motivated to drive over in order to see what the fuss is about.

As a local councilor 10 years ago, I saw two such films, which was one more than enough, and although my councillor colleagues were very well-meaning and determined to apply a fair judgment, in no way could they have been described as representative of the film-going public, 90 per cent. of whom today are in their teens or in their twenties. However, all this is an overstatement.

Very rarely do local authorities use their powers of censorship. In my constituency of Bournemouth, the borough council only use them when representations are made by members of the public or when a member of the council wishes a film to be vetted. During the past seven years only eight films in Bournemouth have been seen by the appropriate committee. Four of them were passed and four were banned. The council was right, for example, to look at the film "A Life of Brian", which it allowed to be shown although its apparent theme was offensive to many Christians who had not seen it. It was also right that the council should see "Caligula". It allowed the film to be shown in the borough despite the fact that it had been boycotted by critics and had apparently been disowned by the author and some of the stars. It is certainly not a film in the rich traditions of Roman epics such as "Ben Hur" and "Spartacus".

The Williams report has not produced a better alternative to our present system. Although I welcome the representative nature of the statutory board proposed by Williams, which would take over the functions of the British Board of Film Censors and the censorship powers of local authorities, that, in itself, is not enough. I cannot see that such a body would possibly be able to take into account all the different standards and attitudes prevailing within our various communities. It would not be able to reconcile successfully what is permitted to be shown in London with what is acceptable in Bournemouth and Cornwall—not to mention Presbyterian Wales. Who are those at the national level—or who are we—to say what should apply locally both in this and in many other respects.

I have always been a strong supporter of and believer in local decision-making The lower down the scale in an organisation a decision is made, the more relevant, effective and in tune with local wishes and needs it is likely to be. That is why I opposed much of the local government reorganisation that took place in the early 1970s. In addition, that is why local authorities should retain their powers of film censorship, in recognition of the fact that local opinion of certain films can be at variance with the so-called national view.

By all means let us pursue the Williams concept of a statutory film examination board. At least it would be better than the present situation whereby the film industry censors, or otherwise, its own films. Local authorities should emulate the representative nature of such a board and should invite others to join them in committee of the council when films are vetted. A more broadly-based local vetting committee would go a long way towards reducing the ridicule that I referred to and would ensure better judgment. I oppose any suggestion to end the powers of local councils to vet films that are to be shown locally. I very much hope that the Minister will accept that view.

1.32 pm
Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I welcome the Williams report, not because I agree with everything in it but because it is a wide-ranging and up-to-date analysis—compiled with great scholarship—of one of the most important problems facing the nation. Therefore, I welcome the debate and the many thoughtful speeches that have been made by hon. Members from both sides of the House.

I am not sure that I welcome the Minister's first response. It represented a continuation of the usual response that we have come to expect from Governments who have an obligation thrust on them to tackle a subject that is as amorphous, complex and terrifying in its likely demands upon legislative time as that of pornography. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State said that he would listen and consider, and although some may have thought that that meant that something would be done, I fear that those of us who have been in this place but a few years know that the magic words "listen and consider", without anything more positive, seldom lead to anything concrete.

It would be a great shame, as well as a waste of the time of distinguished people, if the Williams report ended up gathering dust on a shelf, like so many of its predecessors. I hope that the Government will be stirred by the report, the debate, and public opinion into doing something about the law on pornography.

The public are getting fed up with the seeming ineffectiveness of the courts, the police and Parliament in dealing with the subject. They are particularly alarmed by the spread of child pornography and the fact that the drive for increased pornography comes in the wake of the large profits made in that industry. There is a strong motive power to move on to ever more extensive forms of pornography and towards the breakdown of the social fabric of the nation. The resistance to it does not have that drive; the resistance is apathetic and reluctant to get involved in protracted legislation and argument.

There is no agreement on a form of words to provide a solution. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State is right in saying that there is no agreement and that there must be agreement before we pass a law, but he is wrong in concluding—if that was his conclusion—that there is not sufficient agreement to legislate. There is.

The disagreement is about the morality of the matter and how far we should legislate for morality. It is about the choice of words and how far the law should go. There is little disagreement about the fact that where significant harm is done or a significant public nuisance is caused there must be more restriction.

The third recommendation of the committee is important. It says: The law should rest partly on the basis of harms caused by or involved in the existence of the material: these alone can justify prohibitions'. The committee is saying that, whatever the general disagreements, by the one test of "Is it causing harm or a public nuisance?" there is a sufficient degree of agreement for us to do more to restrict the spread of pornography.

The committee's first recommendation is that because of the variety of ineffective laws a new comprehensive statute is necessary. We can all agree with that, although the restrictions on parliamentary time may mean that we shall have to move towards that position by stages.

We can do two things about pornography—suppress it by savage legislation or control it. Suppression involves interference with the liberty of the subject. We have heard lengthy and interesting speeches about John Stuart Mill and liberty. I add only the observation that there is also the liberty that ordinary citizens ought to enjoy not to have pornography thrust at them when they turn on their televisions, open books, go into newsagents shops or walk down the street. That is a very important aspect of liberty. But we are all agreed that suppression will be difficult and that control will be much more easy and practical. Are the present controls adequate? If they are not, what is to be done about them?

We were able to detect an inadequate control over the display of pornography. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) has filled the gap adequately and in a praiseworthy fashion, because it has required the devotion of a substantial part of his life in the past year. In fact, my hon. Friend has just returned from the other place where he has been to see how his excellent Bill is progressing. I understand that it is progressing successfully, and we welcome that. A substantial step has been taken by that Bill to take pornography off the streets, where it has assaulted so many people.

I warn the House, however, as one who served on the Standing Committee that considered that Bill, that it is capable of having only a limited effect upon the spread of pornography in our society. It is an important effect, but it is only a limited one.

What about written pornography? Have we adequate controls there? The problem has been that the law has enabled juries to acquit what is now quite a lengthy line of books which clearly were offensive to ordinary people. The reason has been the inadequacy of the law and the test of obscenity.

Perhaps I can best state the weaknesses of the law by quoting the Master of the Rolls who, in a case in the Court of Appeal in 1972, said: In the first place, the test of obscenity is much too restricted, or it has been interpreted too narrowly…In the second place, the 'defence of public good' has opened a door through which many a pornographer can escape…The Obscene Publications Act, 1959, does not provide a sound foundation. It fails to provide a satisfactory test of obscenity: and it allows a defence of public good which has got out of hand.

Mr. Christopher Price

Is not it also true that it is not only weaknesses in the law which have caused sometimes quite surprising acquittals by juries, but a changing attitude of jurors? In an almost exactly similar case 20 years ago, any jury would have almost certainly convicted. The average jury now has a quite different attitude towards these matters.

Mr. Lawrence

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) is right. One conclusion that can be drawn from that is that any law that restricts obscenity must take into account the changing attitudes of the people. That is wholly right. Nevertheless the reason for the acquittals is not only changing attitudes but the confusion of juries being hamstrung by rules of law which have been far too restrictive, as the Master of the Rolls said.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Is not it also possible that in a small way juries have become depraved and corrupted, albeit not realising it, by the changing standards that they have seen around them?

Mr. Lawrence

My hon. Friend points to another and much more enduring danger of pornography. We reach the stage where we do not appreciate the consequences involved in some of the decisions that we take. Our minds are anaesthetised to the dangers, especially when we are under pressure, as a jury is.

The same criticisms do not seem to apply to the same extent to the forms of pornography which are dealt with in the magistrates' courts. There, the various statutes seem to deal with offensive literature with shorter shrift. There is massive forfeiture of imports from the Customs and Excise law, the definitions of indecency are more commonsense and by and large an obscenity case in a magistrates' court is dealt with far more rigidly for the protection of society than one sometimes gets the impression is done when a case goes before a jury, when the law somehow seems to be more complex.

Unfortunately, it may be the difficulties of dealing with the written word tht have driven the Williams committee to its most ridiculous recommendation—recommendation 6. That says: The printed word should be neither restricted nor prohibited since its nature makes it neither immediately offensive nor capable of involving the harms we identify, and because of its importance in conveying ideas. I was delighted to hear my hon. and learned Friend's reaction to that. It was the same as mine. The Government reject that conclusion. But the fact remains that my hon. and learned Friend has not put forward a definition of obscenity to deal with the written word, and I have not heard anyone put forward a definition of obscenity to deal with the written word or with any other form of pornography today. I had been hopeful that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies), who has done a great deal of work on this matter, might have done so.

Perhaps I may attempt a definition. It is certainly one that bears consideration, not because I have thought of it off the top of my head, but because many people have put their minds to it and this may be a distillation of some of those thoughts. We must get down to a definition of what we mean by obscenity if we are to restrict or control it. Here is my contribution; any material or performance shall be obscene if it grossly affronts contemporary community standards of decency by virtue of its preoccupation with violence, cruelty, horror, sexual perversions or sexual functions.

That is not perfect, but it the only definition that has been advanced today, and it it will provoke others to advance definitions that can be looked at with care by the lawyers, perhaps in the end we shall produce a definition that is an improvement on that which has been advanced in earlier legislation.

It is important that in the definition we do not fall into the error that earlier legislation has fallen into. I welcome therefore, recommendation 9 of the Williams committee which says: No material or performance should be exempt from these restrictions on the ground of any intrinsic merit it might possess although it specifically excludes the written word from that. The pornography of writing would also benefit from stronger powers of seizure under the Customs and Excise Acts, and that has already been dealt with.

I come now to the theatre. Unfortunately the restraints on live performances in the public theatre went in 1968 with the removal of the Lord Chamberlain. But that has not stopped—it may have been the cause of or stimulus to—the increase in the number of complaints from constituents about the difficulty of going to a show in the West End of London that does not contain some offensive matter, because offensive matter is considered necessary to attract the crowds. That is not always because there is explicit sexual activity. Often it is the use of language—vile words—which causes offence.

I recently had a letter from a constituent who said that he wanted to take his child to a theatre in the West End and, knowing the dangers, he was careful to vet all the shows as he saw them advertised for one which looked harmless. They went to one and found that it was full of foul language. Somebody has to do something about that. The theatre industry does nothing. We do not bring prosecutions for such matters, but we should consider the restoration of some form of moderate censorship in the theatre.

The criminal law on film censorship is utterly inadequate. I have this month referred a film to the British Board of Film Censors. A complaint was made to me by someone who feels very strongly about the depravity of some of the films shown in our cinemas. I shall not name the film. I do not wish to contribute even a jot or tittle to the box office returns for such a film.

I wrote to Lord Harlech about it, and he replied courteously and at length. He described how the film had caused a great deal of concern to the British Board of Film Censors; that credits, when it was made, had been taken off; that there had been a positive deletion of hard core pornography; that what was left had been examined by two distinguished lawyers; that there had been months of reediting and refilming; that there had been 50 separate deletions. The film also had distinguished actors and actresses. He concluded: The BBFC is not an arbiter of taste or of film quality. The fact that I and others at the Board thought the film had little merit, being badly directed and acted and having deplorable sets and a rotten script is neither here nor there. In the version we passed we had no doubt that it conformed with the present law of the land and would be found acceptable to the great majority of local authorities, who are, of course, the bodies legally responsible for censorship. So, according to Lord Harlech, everything was more or less all right.

That great board had managed, by such powers as it has, to control this film's excesses. I went to see the film last week. It is the vilest film one could imagine, even in its doctored state. It was about the monstrous depravity of a madman. Orgy followed orgy. There was bleeding to death in a bath tub. There was torture. There was slow strangulation. There were explicit and continual scenes of lesbianism. There were erect phalluses all over the place. There was vomiting, urination, violent murder and blood all over the screen. This was after the British Board of Film Censors had done its work within the law, and said: In the version we passed we had no doubt that it conformed with the present law of the land and would be found acceptable to the great majority of local authorities. Any councillor representing responsibly any council who went to see that film and approved it would need to have most of the parts of his body examined. However, that is the state of the law and something must be done about it.

In recommendations Nos. 34 to 56 the Williams committee considers a catalogue of changes that should be made in film censorship. They are worthy of the greatest consideration. I do not know whether there is anything to be gained from replacing one body with another, but it is clear that the law must be strengthened to stop such films.

The cinema was fairly full of young people when I went to see this film. Whether they were 16, 17 or 18, who is to say? I should not have liked anyone in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, or even 60s to see that film, but it is particularly important that we do not allow our children to see it.

The law has been shown to be inadequate in relation to sex shops in particular. I am pleased to note the moves towards the licensing of such institutions by the local authorities. It is they who should decide whether quiet residential streets or premises near schools should be encumbered by sex shops.

There is widespread revulsion, not only at the spread of pornography, but at the increasing volume of the spread. There is widespread public concern at its cumulative effect, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hove said in his excellent speech. There is widespread concern at the drip, drip, drip on the moral fibre of the nation and at its anaesthetising effect which resulted in the observation that, prhaps, juries themselves do not always appreciate what is happening.

The public are concerned about the effect of pornography on crime. The Williams report reaches a surprising conclusion. It states: We unhesitatingly reject the suggestion that the available statistical information for England and Wales lends any support at all to the argument that pornography acts as a stimulus to the commission of sexual violence. If ever there was a statement which discredited statistics, that is it. Everybody knows that there is some cause and effect. To deny that, and still less to deny it when court after court has seen and heard of the effect, is nonsense. That is why I intervened in the speech by the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr Silkin) to give an example of that cause and effect. We must ignore that conclusion as being so much an aberration as not to be worthy of coommonsense cnsideration.

The public are concerned about the effect of pornography on crime. They are also concerned about the effect of pornography on the respect in which women are held in our society and the respect in which anybody is held. Pornography lowers the respect that one individual has for another. People are concerned about the effect of pornography on our children. They conclude that it has become more and more unacceptable.

We have talked enough. We have wrung our hands in this building hard enough and long enough. The time has come to reach a conclusion. If the Williams report is a stimulus to that conclusion, it will have been very well worth while. The assurance I seek from my hon. and learned Friend is that there will be the production, in a resonably short time, of a Government Green Paper that will be the first stage towards a Bill or several small Bills to make sure that the spread of pornography is resuicted, and that we, in this Parliament, truly reflect the fear and anguish of a large proportion of the people we represent.

2 pm

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

I apologise for speaking in a debate in which I have not heard the opening speeches. I do so only because I feel it important that hon. Members from the Opposition side of the House should be heard on this issue. It is a grave criticism of Opposition Members that their attendance for this important debate has been much thinner than the attendance on the Government Benches. It is a criticism that I wholly accept.

It should be stated that there are some hon. Members who believe that Williams broadly got it right. I share the fears of the hon. and learned Member for Burton. (Mr. Lawrence) that the Government will not do anything about the report. If, however, the Government should act, Williams is the best agreed basis on which to proceed. I do not hold the view, expressed by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and some of his hon. Friends, that unsatisfactory developments in the last 20 years in the area of pornography result from bits of legislation such as the Obscene Publications Act. The events of the 1960s did not simply occur in Britain. They happened all over the world in both developed and developing countries. The causes were much deeper than any bits and pieces of legislation passed in this House.

If one considers everything that happened in the 1960s, one sees a great deal that was good and some that was bad. I happen to be one of those who believes that the good, on the whole, outweighed the bad. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Newbury, who behaved like Ovid's Laudator Temporis Acti—someone who believes that it was all right in the 1930s but wrong in the 1980s and that somehow the golden age occurred 20 or 30 years ago when one was growing up and presumably enjoying the happiest days of one's life. It is a human phenomenon to hold such a belief. I do not believe that it was ever true.

Obscenity is a particular problem for Conservative Members, who broadly believe that we should have a society in which capitalism can operate freely and where people who want to sell things for which there is a demand should be allowed to do so. The difficulty for those hon. Members is that they wish to erode that principle of capitalism when it comes to matters such as pornography, for which there is a manifest economic demand. Somehow, they feel that they have to try to suppress that economic demand. The difficulty that they face is that the more restrictive one makes the law the more pornography thrives on that law. One cannot escape that truth. The law and the capitalist mechanism are wholly handmaidens in this process.

The pornographers who make money out of pornography like restrictive law. They want restrictive law because it puts up both their prices and their profits. It improves their trade. If Conservative Members want to put more money in the pockets of pornographers, the way to do it is to have a restrictive law.

If Conservative Members are in Europe for their summer holidays, I invite them to go to Copenhagen. Ten years ago, Copenhagen was universally held up to the world at large as the sex capital of the world. Lord Longford went there—I do not know whether Mary Whitehouse went there, but I expect she did—and came back with terrible tales. But although Copenhagen now has no restrictive laws, it is a prim city. The sex business has folded up because the Danes had the guts to relax their laws and to go through an appalling period when everyone tried to experiment with what they could do with those relaxed laws. The Danes are trusting people and they did so fully in the confidence that, at the end of the day, common sense would emerge and the demand for such material would collapse when the public and the tourists had briefly sated themselves.

Mr. Lawrence

If what the hon. Gentleman stated were true, that would be a significant matter of importance. However, I wonder whether he has seen the observations of the chief psychiatrist in the mental hospital in Nyborg, Denmark, who, commenting on the evidence in the Williams report, said that There are still a large number of shops with pornography only. A district in Copenhagen…has been completely changed into a district with porno-shops, massage clinics and prostitution. The streets are characterized by drug addicts, alcoholic abuse and violence. Formerly it was a residential quarter; now only a few guest workers live there. In a street in this district…there are 30 porno-shops with cinemas, showing non-stop X films, in a distance of 400 metres. In the Copenhagen main street…and in most provincial towns there are similar shops and 'cinemas', e.g. Aalborg with approximately 95,000 inhabitants has five shops and 'cinemas'. One wonders where the hon. Gentleman got his information and why his information should be considered to be more reliable than that of the chief psychiatrist at that mental hospital.

Mr. Price

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give the date of that report?

Mr. Lawrence

September 1980.

Mr. Price

My impression when walking through Copenhagen recently was immensely more pleasurable than walking through almost any district of London.

Mr. Lawrence

The hon. Gentleman was anaesthetised.

Mr. Price

I was not, because I am able to compare London with Copenhagen. I know that there are quarters of Copenhagen—just as there are quarters of every city in the West—which have such shops. Our evidence is that the impact of pornography in Denmark has massively declined over the past 10 years.

I do not want to go too deeply into the matter, but I went to Copenhagen 10 years ago and one could not get away from the fact that the whole of the centre had been taken over by that relaxation of the laws. That is not true now, although I accept the hon. and learned Gentleman's evidence that every town in Denmark—and in almost any other part of Europe—has its pornography quarter. The decision which the House will have to take one day is whether one wants to restrict such things to a particular quarter of a town or whether one wants to try to suppress it altogether.

The only point that I am trying to make is that I believe that that is a credible way of trying to deal with the problem. There is no evidence that the comparatively open policies of the three Scandinavian countries dealing with the problem of pornography have been any less successful in reducing the impact of pornography on those countries than the comparatively more suppressive policies of other countries, such as the United Kingdom. I merely sound a note of warning. Introducing tougher laws does not necessarily solve the problem.

Williams was right about the printed word. The one thing that can be said about the printed word is that it is not thrust down anyone's throat. It is within the covers of a book. There is an argument for guarding people's sensibilities by not allowing things to be thrust down their throats, but there is no argument for the law of the land getting into the Mrs. Grundy business. Once one starts getting into that business, it is difficult to draw the line and one is sucked further and further in.

I was interested in the definition put forward by the hon. and learned Member for Burton, and one would have to examine it again and again to see how sound it was. However, I suspect that the word "contemporary" in the definition might make it almost impossible for the law to operate.

I repeat that I am sorry that I did not hear the opening speeches. However I felt it worth while to say that, although I fully understand the concern of hon. Members on the Government Benches and believe that the Government should grasp the nettle and not run away, nevertheless I caution the House against attempting more oppressive legislation. It often encourages that which it is designed to get rid of.

2.11 pm
Dr. Summerskill

This has been an extremely useful and responsible debate. I am agreeably surprised at the general consensus. The majority of hon. Members agree that our present archaic laws are extremely unsatisfactory and that the Government should take steps to remedy the situation. They look to the Williams proposals as a useful basis and framework for such measures. I listened carefully to every speech, and I believe that that is a fair summary of the debate.

The Government have a unanimous Williams report, have had public comments for over one-and-a-half years—I doubt whether there are many more to come—and have heard the general consensus in the debate on the broad aims that we wish them to pursue. Although I was not so optimistic at the beginning of the debate that the Government would be prepared to put something definite to the House, the general view is that the Government should do so, and I hope that the Minister will respond.

2.13 pm
Mr. Mayhew

I warmly endorse what the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) said about the quality and value of the debate. It has revealed an area of agreement. We all agree with the Williams report that the present law is a mess I think that we also agree with what follows from that, namely, that it would be very useful for new and more effective law to be placed upon the statute book.

It is when one comes to the specifics that the immediate difficulty becomes apparent. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) was alone in producing a formula. I am grateful to him for that and it will, of course, be studied. When he said that we were agreed on the need for new legislation and that we disagreed only about the actual choice of words, however, I am afraid that it crossed my mind that it was a fairly wide and important area of disagreement when one comes to consider legislation.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) drew attention to the impossibility of devising a legal formula—to misuse that word—which would adequately prohibit the circulation of hard porn. It is the means by which we seek to give legislative effect to the overwhelming wishes of our constituents that causes the problems. We in the Home Office, of course, have a duty to try to ensure that the criminal law meets the wishes of most people in this country. Equally, we have a duty to try to ensure that legislation for which we are responsible will leave the criminal law in a better and not a worse state than it is at present.

Several hon. Members recall the history and fate of section 16 of the Theft Act. That legislation was brought forward to try to do for the law of theft what most of us have said today is needed for the law relating to pornography, seeking to bring together in a modern statute a code of law which would do away with the many difficulties and anomolies to which the development of the law over some 80 years had given rise. On the whole, that legislation has been fairly successful, save for section 16 which was introduced by way of amendment in Committee but gave rise to the most appalling difficulties and after several years had to be corrected. I am saying in effect that the House is not terribly successful when it seeks in Committee or on the Floor of the House to legislate on matters of technical legal difficulty. There is indeed a wide area of agreement that the law needs to be and ought to be improved. The difficulty facing my right hon. Friend since the publication of the Williams report, and indeed before that, is that there is also a wide area of disagreement as to the way in which the law should be improved.

The hon. Member for Halifax asked in particular what was the volume of opinion received by the Home Office following publication of the Williams report and how it compared with public opinion received by the Williams committee. I had thought it helpful to tell the House how that opinion was broken down. As I have said, the bulk of that opinion received by the Home Office has been opposed in one respect or another to the recommendations of the Williams committee. She said that if it matched in volume that which Williams had received she would be impressed by my analysis. I must tell her that my right hon. Friend received over 2,000 letters from members of the public commenting on the report's proposals. That compares with about 1,400 received by the committee. As to comments from organisations, we wrote to all the organisations listed in part A of appendix 8 of the report, and to the main organisations listed in part B. Most of them replied. In addition, we received a number of comments from organisations responding to the general invitation extended by my right hon. Friend.

I do not believe, therefore, that the hon. Lady's first point that the evidence or comments received by the Home Secretary cannot be given the same weight as evidence and comments received by the committee can be seen to carry much weight.

The hon. Lady expressed doubts about the recommendations of the committee relating to the film examining board. She questioned whether it was necessary to remove a system that had served us well. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant), speaking with great experience of the film industry, also expressed considerable reservations about that. I was grateful to him for one particular aspect of his speech. He said that, having come to the debate expecting and believing that the issues were relatively simple and that legislation, given the will, could be speedy and effective, he had now come to the conclusion that these matters were much more difficult than he had supposed. He said that he had developed considerable sympathy for the not very exciting or exhilarating approach that I had adopted this morning.

If people read the debate, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will certainly read it, with great care, they will see that it has thrown up a wide diversity of opinion as to what the law should do—

Mr. Lawrence

My hon. and learned Friend is overmodest. His speech was both exhilarating and exciting. What it was not was constructive.

Mr. Mayhew

I am grateful for anything that is passed my way in the nature of a compliment.

I was grateful that there appeared to be such wide agreement, though it was not unanimous, with what I said in giving the Government's reaction to the WIliams committee's proposal to exempt the written word from control. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) thought that the committee was right on that point. I do not think that there were many other voices—perhaps there was only one other—expressing the view that he put forward. Speech after speech took the view that I had sought to express that the written word can be offensive, dangerous and harmful to an extent at least equalled by other material which the Williams recommendations would propose to control. The fact will be carefully noted by the Government.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West said that to introduce restrictive legislation would be to play into the hands of the pornographers because they would make more money. He said that they thrived on restrictive legislation. One could hardly say that our legislation today is particularly restrictive. Unhappily, nor could one say that pornography and pornographers are going through a thin time. I do not think, therefore, that the corollary can apply that pornographers are prosperous only when the legislation is restrictive.

We in Government have to do our best to try to meet what I believe to be a strong opinion among our constituents that the law should be more effective in curbing the excesses which successive speakers in the debate have described.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton has given vivid examples in particular of films. The committee also gave vivid examples of revolting films which it had seen. I do not think that we should be content simply to say that the statistics and the other evidence of which the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin) spoke do not prove the case one way or the other, and that, when people suppose that crimes of sexual attack or of violence are stimulated by the availability of pornography the supposition is based only on anecdotal evidence. I do not believe that we should dismiss that evidence as being of no account.

If we want to denigrate what most people regard as common sense, I have noticed that it is now the OK thing to describe it as being based on anecdotal evidence—"I am recording the truth, you are reciting an anecdote, he is romancing." I do not find myself falling back in dismay when I am told that a proposition is based on anecdotal evidence. When people tell me that they are satisfied that there is a link of the nature demonstrated in the case mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton, I cannot find it within myself to say that they must be mistaken. I do not think there is anything in the Williams report to contradict that assertion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) made a helpful and important speech. I agreed entirely with what he said about the definition that the Williams committee gave to harm. He told us—I thought it entirely right—that one should not assess and evaluate harm simply by proven harm to individuals. He said that it was a matter of a slow and steady pollution of our environment. He drew the analogy of lead pollution in our atmosphere and asked "Can we be satisfied that there is no harm in relation to the higher divorce statistics, and the sense of damage to the standards and values of family life deriving from the availability of pornography in one form or another?"

The right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich kindly told me that he could not be present for my reply to the debate. He asked whether I disputed the statistics on which the Williams committee relied. Of course I do not. All I am saying is that the experience of his colleagues and of mine who have to deal in a judicial capacity with cases of sexual attack is that there are today violent embellishments that were not found in the sexual cases of 10 years ago, and that that development is marked to a considerable degree.

I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Ryman), who complained that there should be any possibility of licensing sex shops. I believe that a system of licensing sex shops may well prove to be the most effective means of reducing their spread, which is causing so much damage and concern at the moment.

Much has been said about the absence of any comment in the report about video cassettes. It is a very important new development and one to which the Government wish to give careful attention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr Eggar) has great experience of the film industry. We have received the report of the committee of which he was a member and we are grateful for it. We shall take careful note of the report. Many other important speeches have been made, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). I listened with great sympathy to his remarks. If, having reflected on the debate and on other material, we find that it is open to us to put forward legislation that meets our wishes and the wishes of the majority of hon. Members, we shall be delighted to do so.

The debate has been helpful and useful. It may not have lit our path forward, but it has certainly served to illuminate the difficulties involved and the opinions of hon. Members. We are grateful to hon. Members for what has been said.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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