HC Deb 15 December 1989 vol 163 cc1367-74

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

2.31 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Violence and children in pornography is not a pleasant subject at any time. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me, because some of the matters that I want to relate are not easy to talk about.

Those issues trouble people deeply. As a scene-setter to the debate, I mention to the House a survey conducted over the past two weekends in my constituency by 20 Liverpool women. It underlines the seriousness with which people regard pornography and the degradation of those who are often involved in violent and repulsive acts.

Five hundred and two women aged between 14 and 60 were surveyed. They were asked their opinion on the sale of soft porn: 72 per cent. found the display of such magazines offensive; 86 per cent. thought that the magazines cheapened women generally; 76 per cent. saw a link between porn magazines and the sexual physical abuse of women; and 80 per cent. would prefer that local newsagents voluntarily stopped selling porn, but 75 per cent. were in favour of a legal ban on newsagents selling such material.

That information is a microcosm of general public opinion. The feeling is shared among hon. Members and many people outside that action is needed to tackle this deep problem. Above all, it is Parliament's duty to cultivate respect for individual human decency in our society.

This afternoon, I want to mention women and children who are portrayed in or who suffer as a result of pornography. All of us will have been sickened at various moments when we have read of some new atrocious crime committed against women or children. The Liverpool Echo has reported a number of cases, and perhaps the most graphic occurred in February, when a woman was raped and sexually assaulted by five men in a public house. The circumstances were similar to those in the film "The Accused". Unfortunately, as is often the case, the woman did not press charges, possibly through fear. It is hard to believe that the perpetrators of such offences are members of the same planet, let alone the same country. We must face the fact that there are men who fill their minds with a diet of pornography and then act upon such influences.

Let me give a few examples from the past 18 months. In October 1988, a woman and her 14-year-old daughter were attacked by a hooded man in their home in a Suffolk village. The mother had her clothes cut off with a knife before she was raped and the daughter was indecently assaulted. One may ask: how could a man do such a thing? The police believe that they found a clue to his behaviour when they discovered in his home a scrapbook of cuttings from pornographic magazines and sordid and sinister stories with a recurring theme of complete domination and defilement of woman and young girls. In Leicester last December, a man who raped his stepdaughter and tried to have intercourse with her younger sister was sentenced to 14 years in gaol. The offences had continued for a six-year period. It is surely legitimate to ask: how did the stepfather influence his young victim? He did so by showing her illustrations from pornographic magazines.

In Lincoln last December, a man who sexually abused a four-year-old girl was put on probation only for a year because the girl was extraordinarily well versed in sexual knowledge". Where did that four-year-old girl obtain such knowledge? She had been shown pornographic videos in her home.

In Putney in the summer of 1988, a rapist who had committed a series of attacks, involving gagging and threatening a woman with a knife, was sentenced to 18 years in prison. The police believe that he copied his ideas for his rapes from the bondage magazine "The Trap" which he had been reading.

These are not isolated examples. Researchers in the United States of America have identified the stages through which sex offenders go, leading up to their crimes, and the role that pornography can play in them. One of the leading researchers is Dr. Victor Cline, a clinical psychologist at the university of Utah, who has treated several hundred sex offenders over many years. Almost all his clients use pornography, and he describes four common factors that result in this condition.

The first is addiction. In Cline's words, "they got hooked." The pornographic material provided a sexual stimulant. One patient could not stay away from pornography even when he was offered $1,000 to do so for 90 days. The second stage is escalation. Cline's patients could not stop with soft pornography. As time went on, they required more explicit, rougher and more deviant kinds of sexual material. A dramatic example of escalation is the case of Ted Bundy, the serial killer and sex attacker who was executed in Florida in January. Some hon. Members will have seen a video of an interview that he gave the night before he died. Bundy candidly told how he started by buying girlie magazines in a local shop when he was 13 or 14, but by his early 20s he was buying the most shocking material.

The third stage is desensitisation, when shocking materials become commonplace and acceptable. Increasingly, Cline's clients felt, "Everybody does this, so it must be OK." The fourth stage is acting it out sexually. Cline says that eventually clients tended to act out what they had seen. That is what Ted Bundy did. He no longer got satisfaction from merely looking. He felt that he had to carry out those actions.

Addiction, escalation, desensitisation and then emulation. That is why we should be so worried about the growth in pornography. Society is allowing seeds to be sown through the sales of pornography. They are reaped in a harvest of sex crime, violence, sexual harassment and wrong attitudes towards women.

I understand why some feminists describe pornography as causing incitement to sexual hatred. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) on highlighting this issue and in particular on her involvement in the Off the Shelf campaign to get pornography off the shelves of leading newsagents. Although little research has been conducted in the United Kingdom, I think that there would be widespread acceptance of Cline's model. For example, in February Ray Wyre, a former probation officer who has had wide experience of treating sex offenders, spoke at a seminar in the House of Lords, that had been organised by CARE—Christian Action Research Education—about what he called the "normalising" impact of pornography. Rapists, child molesters and others see pornographic magazine and videos available for sale on every high street, think that this is accepted by society and then believe that women want to be dominated by men.

In quoting Cline's research and Ray Wyre's comments I am not trying to suggest that all sex crime can be explained away by the influence of pornography. That would be a naive view which I do not hold. In addition, I do not believe that because a man is addicted to pornography that lessens his crime. Rape is rape and murder is murder. However, if Cline and Wyre are right, and many other researchers believe they are, if we tackle the prevalence and the acceptability of pornography in our society we can only do good and help to prevent further crime.

As the head of the obscene publications squad at Scotland yard until this February, chief superintendent lain Donaldson, said, The thought is father to the action. The first step is to ensure that research similar to that of Cline, Zillerman, Malmuth and other American researchers is undertaken in this country.

Welcome though the Minister's announcement in answer to my parliamentary question was when he said yesterday that research is to be commissioned, I want to press him further about the nature of that research. I was also delighted that last week, in response to a written question from me, the Minister said that his Department would review the available evidence of the links between pornography and sex crime. As I have demonstrated today, there is a considerable amount of evidence, anecdotal and academic, that any review should consider.

I am concerned and would like to ask the Minister about the review's terms of reference. Why will it not be open to the public to submit evidence? This matter deeply involves the public and it would be absurd to exclude them from the review and the debate that should follow from it.

Who exactly will undertake the work? Why will it not include the commissioning of new research? How will the Government proceed once the review is completed? In particular, when the review is undertaken, will the Government examine the examples that I presented today? There has been no funding from the Home Office of such work up to now, so unless we look at the type of examples I mentioned and what has happened elsewhere, and accept evidence that can he submitted by outside interested organisations, it is doubtful whether any review of existing research will be sufficient. We could predict the outcome of such an inquiry today.

We need to conduct research into the factors involved in the imprisonment of sex offenders. I know that the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) posed similar questions in a letter to the Home Secretary. We are both concerned that this should not be merely a paper exercise. Many Members are concerned about the issue. The Minister will know that 180 Members have now signed early-day motion 27 calling for a study of the issue. Those Members, like me, were interested in a public review of the matter, so I hope that the Minister will clarify the terms of what he has decided should happen.

Research and the proposed review is the first issue on which I want the Minister to speak today. The second is the present law on obscenity and its enforcement. We received some welcome news last week when the Home Office confirmed that it would like the current law to be tightened with a new definition of obscenity, describing it as something grossly offensive to a reasonable person". However, it is one thing to announce the need for change and entirely another actually to make the change. I believe that the law needs immediate amendment.

I shall speak particularly about printed material, such as magazines and books. I wonder when the Minister last visited a newsagent and looked at the sort of magazines now being stocked. I hope that he might be too ashamed to do so. I am no prude, but I was deeply shocked when I discovered the sort of material that can be bought even within a mile of this House, without going to a licensed sex shop or specialised mail order firm or asking for material under the counter. Many shops now sell 10, 15 or 20 magazines catering for every whim and fetish.

Two trends particularly disturb me. The Minister has a copy of a magazine called "Razzle" which includes pictures of a woman dressed in leather with her hands in chains. Part of the myth of pornography is that women are portrayed as enjoying such degradation. This is far from the worst example that I could have chosen, but it is just a few steps away from the sort of magazine used by the Putney rapist. Is it acceptable within the terms of the Obscene Publications Act 1959? Would it be caught by the new, "grossly offensive" definition? 1 certainly find it grossly offensive.

The second matter of concern is the recent appearance of so-called "shaver" material in magazines. "Shaver" denotes the fact that women have had their pubic hair shaved off before posing for photographs. Why do such magazines sell? I can only presume that it is to satisfy the desire of some to fantasise about young girls. I agree with an article in The Independent in April that catalogued the kind of material available in a typical high street: What is being represented are female children inviting sexual access and what is being engineered is the sexual arousal of adult males by their bodies. Child pornography is illegal in this country and I must commend the police for all that they have done, and are doing, to try to stamp it out. But is not a new generation of paedophiles being succoured on this shaver material? How do such magazines measure up against the 1959 Act or the proposed new definition? Is the Minister happy that such material is available freely in newsagents next to school playgrounds where young innocent girls are playing?

What little confidence I had in the Obscene Publications Act 1959 was shattered when I heard of the case of "Under the Rooftops of Paris." This is a book written by Henry Miller which includes scenes of bestiality, sex with children, and a particularly foul scene when during a mass a priest urinates in the communion wine, dips a wafer in the wine, wipes it on the genitalia of a naked woman lying on the altar and then tosses it to the congregation. When the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) sent a summary of the book to the Solicitor-General and asked what action would be taken, he received the reply that the DPP had decided not to institute proceedings. I find the reasoning somewhat difficult. It was to the effect that the DPP has weighed the factors relevant to the discharge of the burden of proof by the prosecution and those bearing upon the public interest in cases of this type". I presume that this legal gobbledegook means "We do not think we would win". If that is the case, I believe the Government should be ashamed that they have not yet tightened our laws to protect the weak and innocent, women and children who are damaged by those who buy and read such material.

A change in the law is urgently needed. I challenge the Minister to tell the House when he will introduce new legislation to give the police the backing that they need to tackle the rising tide of pornography. He should not rely on private Members' legislation to deal with such an important issue.

The Broadcasting Bill, which is to have its Second Reading on Monday, brings television and radio under the Obscene Publications Act yet the Government have admitted that the existing definition is inadequate. The Minister should use the opportunity presented by that Bill to tighten up the definition of obscenity. I shall listen with interest to the Minister's response.

2.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) on calling our attention to a topic that unites all of us—the menace of child pornography and other objectionable material that glories and promotes sexual violence. He referred to a number of horrifying crimes and unpleasant publications from which he had drawn disturbing conclusions. In responding I shall range a little more widely to say something about our controls on obscene and indecent material in all its various forms. I shall also take the opportunity to respond to the calls for new research into links between pornography and sexual violence. Finally, I shall say something about the international aspects with an eye to the single market in 1992.

First, on child pornography itself, for obvious reasons we cannot say categorically how much child pornography is being supplied, or whether it is getting nastier.

The trade is covert and we can make our assessments only on the basis of material uncovered by police and customs officers. They tell us that they have discovered some very nasty material indeed. There is no argument about the need to stamp that trade out. There are no considerations of freedom of expression or artistic licence. We all join the hon. Member for Mossley Hill in wanting this vile trade ended.

However, when we consider pornography more generally, the arguments may be less clear cut. One man's pornography may be another man's art. It is sobering to think that "Lady Chatterley's Lover" has moved from being fit for a prosecution as obscene to be being fit for bedtime reading on BBC radio all in the space of a very few years. That illustrates the difficulty of balancing the sometimes competing claims of decency and freedom of expression.

The Obscene Publications Act 1959, to which the hon Gentleman referred, remains after 30 years the main instrument for dealing with pornography at its worst. It would be wrong to think that that Act is ineffective. However, the number of people prosecuted under it varies considerably from year to year, for no obvious reason. In 1987, 121 people were proceeded against while 583 were proceeded against in 1984. The number of convictions per year has ranged from 93 to 429. The Act does get results.

However, convictions are only part of the story. The Obscene Publications Act 1959 provides for obscene material to be seized and impounded. Last year, the Metropolitan police seized more than 650,000 items and more than 800,000 items were seized the year before that.

Although the 1959 Act is being used with effect, as the figures show, the Government view is that it could, with benefit, be strengthened. The test of what is obscene laid down in the 1959 Act is material which, taken as a whole, will tend to deprave and corrupt those exposed to it. That is very close indeed in intention to the view expressed by the hon. Gentleman so very eloquently. It can sometimes be difficult for the prosecution to convince a jury that the material in question will have a depraving and corrupting effect.

Legislation on obscenity is by tradition left to private Members and the Government are reluctant—rightly, I believe—to set that tradition aside. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Government have indicated their support for attempts to strengthen the 1959 Act most recently in 1986–87 by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth). His Bill would have substituted a test of "grossly offensive to a reasonable person" for the "deprave and corrupt" test, but the House will recall that the attempt failed to make enough progress in the time available.

Whether or not there is any direct and provable link between what people see and what they do, we have acted in numerous ways to uphold standards of public decency. With our support, the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981 reached the statute book, prohibiting indecent displays in public places. If the provisions of that Act are used at the minimum people will no longer find themselves or their children confronted with objectionable material in shops and other places. The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 provides, in section 2, for a local authority to take power to restrict sex shops and sex cinemas in its area.

One of the most important measures was the private Member's Bill introduced with Government support by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) which became the Video Recordings Act 1984. Under the Act, videos which are to be supplied to the public must—unless they come within specified exemptions—have a classification certificate issued by the British Board of Film Classification. As a result the "video nasty" has become, for most people, a thing of the past and the classifications given by the board mean that parents have a good guide to the suitability of a video work for their children. The system has, in our judgment, worked outstandingly well.

We know, of course, that there is still some illicit, under-the-counter trade in such products. The police's resources for tackling that are inevitably limited. That is why, in the Criminal Justice Act 1988 the Government extended powers to enforce the Video Recordings Act 1984 to local authority trading standards officers. The effect has been dramatic, marked by an immediate upsurge in the number of requests from trading standards departments to the British Board of Film Classification for certificates of evidence that particular works were not classified, or were not classified suitably for the age group to which they were being supplied.

The Government are also committed to upholding standards in broadcasting. The new Broadcasting Standards Council has a special role to play. Hon. Members will know that it has been active. The Government's new Broadcasting Bill will remove from broadcasters their present exemption from the Obscene Publications Act 1959. We do not think that they are broadcasting obscene material in breach of their existing duties, but they should not be in a specially privileged position. The Broadcasting Bill will ensure also that proper standards are adopted as technologies develop from terrestrial broadcasting via cable to satellite.

The police and the Crown prosecution service are independent of Government, but they are alert to the possibility of bringing proceedings against publishers when there is evidence that the law has been broken, for instance, by sending indecent material through the post or by living on immoral earnings. Unfortunately, in the nature of things, those offences are not easy to prove.

The major legislation in addition to the Obscene Publications Act is the Protection of Children Act 1978, which creates offences of producing or supplying indecent photographs of children. The maximum penalty is a term of imprisonment of up to three years'. Some people—I regret that I cannot say how many—guilty of child pornography will have been prosecuted and convicted under the 1959 Act and will be included in the figures that I gave a few moments ago. In addition, there have been prosecutions under the 1978 Act. They have risen from 10 in 1986 to 32 last year.

It has been suggested that the maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment under the Protection of Children Act is inadequate. We are ready to reconsider this, although we are not yet convinced. To date, it has been rare for the courts to use anything approaching that maximum.

One of the difficulties which the police have found with the Protection of Children Act 1978 is that of proving that someone who has indecent photographs of children in his possession has them for the purpose of supply. It was to meet this weakness that we made provision in last year's Criminal Justice Act for a new offence of simple possession of an indecent photograph of a child. It does not matter whether the person is a commercial pornographer or a customer who has the photograph for his own use.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the powers to deal with child pornography directly, and in particular are strict and wide-ranging. Given the reorganisation which the Commissioner has made in the Metropolitan police's obscene publications branch, we have the necessary arrangements now to crack down heavily on this trade. The hon. Gentleman is interested in the wider effects of pornography. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary told him a few weeks ago, the Home Office is undertaking a further review of the available research on any possible link between pornography and sexual violence. We elaborated on this in the further answer that we gave him yesterday.

Over the years, research into the impact of pornography on people's behaviour has generally produced equivocal results. For many, not least the hon. Gentleman, as he has powerfully argued today, it is common sense that pornography must tend to cause those who see it to regard women or children as sex objects, making them more likely to commit offences against them. Others argue that pornography may have a role as a safety valve for anti-social feelings which might otherwise be expressed in criminal behaviour, and that those who commit such crimes are likely to be interested in pornography, although without the latter being the cause of that interest, but merely a symptom of it.

Although earlier research has generally been inconclusive, we think it only right that we should have the most reliable data available. We therefore intend to draw together reports of research in this country and overseas—not least the Cline report, which, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, was conducted in the United States—to analyse them and to present any conclusions, with whatever weight of evidence we can find.

The review of research will look broadly at the effects of pornography, including any evidence of its effects on attitudes to women, which have been of particular concern to hon. Members, in addition to the hon. Gentleman. Our intention is that that review should be carried out quickly—within the first half of next year—and that the results should be published, as is our usual practice. We shall most certainly arrange for that work to be done by independent professionals, but we shall not decide whether to commission any original research until we have the findings and can see what gaps need filling.

Mr. Alton

May I press the Minister on interested outside organisations such as CARE, which I mentioned earlier, being allowed to submit evidence to the inquiry?

Mr. Lloyd

We certainly look to the public to supply us with any data which has some scientific basis and which we have can include in the study. However, at this stage we do not want anecdotal evidence and information. It is an exercise to study scientifically based research, and when we publish the results the House can discuss the best way to proceed.

I know that that matter has been exercising the hon. Gentleman's mind, because he has tabled many questions about it. I congratulate him on choosing this topic for discussion; the Home Office and I take it extremely seriously. I congratulate him on putting his case so well.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.