HC Deb 02 July 1992 vol 210 cc1061-8

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

10.4 pm

Ms. Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

The aim of tonight's debate is to draw the Minister's attention to problems in the way in which the Obscene Publications Act 1959 operates.

I am a passionate believer in freedom of speech, which is one of the great freedoms on which our society is built. Any limitations on the right to a free press and the right to publish need to be kept to a minimum. But I also believe that freedoms are balanced by responsibility.

When I was asked to add my name to the list of supporters of early-day motion 312 about "Juliette", my initial reaction was to say no; I do not believe in censorship. However, as soon as I had been read excerpts from that violent and horrific book, I was so disgusted and felt so physically sick that. I agreed to add my name to the early-day motion. When I read further extracts, I was pleased that I had made that decision and decided to go further and ask for this Adjournment debate.

It is not just about this one book. "Juliette" is an example of some of the horrendously violent material that is available in booksellers. In June 1991, Arrow published in paperback the first British edition of "Juliette" by the Marquis de Sade, who gives his name to sadism. This is not a book of literary merit; it is too ill translated. Nor is it about sadism as most of us think of it. The main victims are children. Its characters revel in the gross abuse, multiple rape, sodomy and extreme torture and murder of more than 2,100 children and young teenagers and more than 450 women. And, throughout, the murders and tortures are glorified, admired and rewarded.

The Obscene Publications Act 1959 attempted to provide a new balance between freedom to publish and responsibility to others. The responsibility element was expressed in the now notorious phrase that material could be found obscene if it had a tendency to deprave and corrupt. This test has proved a nightmare for juries. There have been perverse decisions about similar material in different parts of the country. The Director of Public Prosecutions has decided not to act against some horrific publications. In some instances the police have been uncertain about what will be found obscene. In the case of "Juliette" and books of this ilk, I do not see how there can be any doubt.

I had thought of quoting from the book this evening. I consider myself to have a reasonably strong stomach, but I am afraid that "Juliette" is too horrible for me to do so. Furthermore, I would not wish to give the impression that there are one or two isolated incidents that are particularly bad. It is the whole book that is the problem. Throughout all his books Sade positively advocates attacks on the vulnerable and finds excuses for child abuse, and thereby justifies it.

I am aware, however, that hon. Members listening to this debate or reading it in Hansard, and indeed the Minister here tonight, may believe that I am over-reacting. I therefore arranged to send the Minister, prior to this debate, a copy of a briefing paper on "Juliette" by the author and journalist Moyra Bremner, which includes extensive quotations and an analysis of the book. Indeed, there is a copy available for every hon. Member in the House. I urge them all to collect and read a copy.

The public have been led to believe that our obscenity and pornography laws are strong. In fact, they are a mess. For example, the law on obscene photographs of children is effective, but, as the case of "Juliette" shows, the law on books is useless. It seems incredible that a publisher would decide to release such a book and that booksellers would sell it. However, some chains, such as W. H. Smith and John Menzies, have refused to stock it, which is very welcome. Sadly, however, there are people willing to buy such books, and publishers can make money from them.

Earlier today, I met Superintendent Michael Hames, who is in charge of the obscene publications squad at Scotland Yard to discuss his work with him. He was quite forthright about the problems that the police have with the Obscene Publications Act. Because of a series of court cases, they can no longer prosecute all the material that they consider to be obscene. It seems as if the rug has been pulled from beneath their feet because written material such as "Juliette" has escaped the current law even though the images that it creates are so powerful. Psychologists working with sex offenders believe that such material can directly influence the actions of those carrying out child abuse and other sex offences.

Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway)

I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the fact that extracts from "Juliette" were sent to me to read, and I share the hon. Lady's revulsion and horror that such books can appear on any bookstall. But the book was first drawn to my attention by a prison chaplain who wrote to me pleading that it should not be provided in the prison library. Whereupon I wrote to the Home Office asking whether that was the sort of material that criminals and sex offenders should have in prison for recreational reading. I received a wet reply from the Home Office Minister, telling me that, as the book was available in bookshops, it was available in prison libraries. Will the Minister please read the book for himself, even if he feels that it is likely to deprave, as I am sure he will? It is disgraceful, not only that it should be in bookshops but that we should give it to prisoners as recreational reading.

Ms. Lynne

I agree with the hon. Lady. It is appalling that the book is available in prisons. It is available in prisons because it is available in the bookshops. If we took it off the bookshelves, it would not be available in the prisons.

Can anyone believe that it is a coincidence that the Moors murderers made notes from de Sade justifying rape and murder? That case still haunts the area that I represent.

Some of us probably associate the obscenity law with prudency and material that simply gives offence. I emphasise that that is not the issue on which I sought this debate. There is ample evidence that grossly violent pornography can do real life harm to individuals and society.

The last time there was a review was in 1978, when the Williams committee looked at the matter. Its report now seems strangely out of date, so much has happened in the area in the past 14 years. All the evidence suggests that pornographic material has become much harder and more violent in its content since that time. Perhaps the only lasting impact of the Williams report was its suggestion that the written word should not be prosecuted because of its importance to literature. I wonder whether members of the Williams committee would take the same view now if they were to read "Juliette". I doubt it very much.

I am certain that the Williams committee never envisaged material as ruthlessly violent as "Juliette" and other books like it being put into high street booksellers. The fact that they are available means, as the hon. Lady said, that they are available in prisons, which is appalling and unacceptable. They are freely available to sex offenders who have been imprisoned for the very crimes that they can then read about in those books. We must make sure that something happens about that.

Freedom of speech and freedom to reach are important, but those freedoms can never be absolute. Publishers cannot claim that books are so educational that they must be exempt from VAT and yet also claim that books such as "Juliette" have no impact. I must make it clear that I am not looking for some draconian new law that will censor every item of material before it is published. I am just asking for protection for the most vulnerable in society.

It will not have escaped the Minister's attention that this Adjournment debate has attracted the support of many hon. Members, in all parts of the House. As a new Member of Parliament, I do not know the names of them all and the constituencies that they represent, so I hope that they will excuse me if I cannot identify them. I am, however, particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) for agreeing to participate in this debate. Cross-party support is so important if our efforts are to have any real effect.

I urge the Minister to respond to that widespread support by instituting a review for the sake of this country's children, and to protect them from further harm.

10.15 pm
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms. Lynne) on securing this, her first Adjournment debate, and I thank her for devoting it to such an important subject and for so actively supporting my campaign against the book "Juliette". The hon. Lady spoke with great feeling, but her arguments were not emotional but were based on reason. I am particularly indebted to her for sharing with me the time allocated for this debate.

The "Juliette" case demonstrates the total inadequacy of the current law on obscenity. "Juliette" is not a book; it is a vile manual, and a thick one at that, that encourages the sexual abuse, murder, and torture of children and other vulnerable people. It is not literature; it is the glorification of extreme violence.

Right hon.and hon. Members in all parts of the House have shown that they support a review of the working of the law on obscenity. Early-day motion 312, in my name —and supported by the hon. Members for Rochdale, for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), and for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), who are all present in the Chamber—calls for such a review. It has to date attracted the signatures of 79 right hon. and hon. Members from seven political parties. I understand that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have also written to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department expressing their support for my call for a review of the law.

I was pleased to learn from a written answer from my hon. Friend the Minister that the Government agree that the law on obscenity has deficiencies, and that they are willing to support attempts at reform. However, although my hon. Friend's answer begins so promisingly, it rapidly runs into the sand, by mistakenly making this suggestion: Recent attempts to reform the law … have failed to attract sufficient parliamentary support". He also argues that this is an area for private Member initiative."—[Official Report, 1 July 1992; Vol. 210, c. 523.] The Government are wrong about why previous attempts at reform failed, and about the extent of Government involvement in such reform.

The most recent attempt at reforming the Obscene Publications Act 1959 was in the Session immediately prior to the 1987 general election, in the form of a Bill sponsored by Mr. Gerald Howarth. His Bill fell not because of lack of support but because of lack of sufficient time due to the general election being called that year.

Since then, there have been two Government initiatives. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 made possession of child pornography an offence, and the Broadcasting Act 1990 extended the provisions of the 1959 Act to broadcasting. It is inaccurate to claim that obscenity law reform is solely a matter for private Members.

I ought also to remind the House of the precedent for Government action in other areas of the law where there is one moral component. There is a long history of Governments' reviewing problems with such laws, facilitating necessary parliamentary debate, bringing forward legislation, and even allowing a free vote on certain provisions. Recent examples involve abortion, embryology, capital punishment, war crimes and Sunday trading.

Madam Speaker

Order. As this is a serious subject, I am sorry to call the hon. Lady to order, but I want to draw her attention and that of the House to the fact that, in general, matters that would entail legislation must not be discussed on the motion for the Adjournment. I can, of course, allow incidental references to legislation, but we must abide by the rules of "Erskine May".

Mrs. Winterton

I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for drawing my attention to the rules of the House. I was, indeed, aware of them, and I was trying to quote previous examples of Government involvement in this area. I am grateful to you for your advice.

I genuinely believe that the Gvoernment need to arrange a review of available options and to introduce new legislation at an early date. I do not believe that hon. Members who have seen the repugnant material included in "Juliette", to which the hon. Member for Rochdale has referred, will accept that the Government could possibly sustain their position that this matter should be left to private Members. Even Scotland Yard has backed my calls for a Government review.

Action is needed now to sort out the law by a careful consideration of all the options for reform. I hope that the Minister, in his response, will announce a review.

10.21 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Jack)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms. Lynne) on obtaining this debate. It gives me personal pleasure to say that her predecessor, Sir Cyril Smith, used lo be a regular visitor to my constituency. With his mother, he took the air in Lytham St. Anne's. I am pleased that the hon. Lady has had this opportunity to raise what is a very important matter. Bearing in mind the tone of the debate and the number of Members who are present, I am in no doubt about the seriousness with which this issue is regarded. not just in this House but, clearly, in the country.

The hon. Member for Rochdale and my hon. Friend the Members for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) urged me, for education's sake, to look at the book "Juliette". I assure the House that as soon as I knew that this debate had been tabled I did just that. I share many of the views that hon. Members have expressed about "Juliette". I found the book extremely difficult to read, and I understand very well the concern and shock that they have expressed about its content.

The hon. Member for Rochdale mentioned the Director of Public Prosecutions. The decision of last December not to prosecute Arrow Books for publishing "Juliette" was made after advice had been received from leading counsel. The reason for that advice was that there was insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction. While I understand hon. Members' concern about that decision, I think that they will agree—

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Jack

I have been generous in terms of time, so I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to make progress. Hon. Members have raised a number of points to which they want replies, but, if it is possible, I shall allow an intervention from my hon. Friend.

I hope that hon. Members will agree that it was right to apply the normal prosecution criteria. As will be appreciated, I cannot comment further on this matter. The advice that the director receives and the considerations that he takes into account in coming to his decisions are, by long tradition and for good reasons, confidential. In discharging this role, the director properly enjoys independence from outside interference—independence that this House, when enacting the relevant legislation, has been most anxious to preserve.

I recognise the force with which comments have been expressed tonight, and I certainly undertake to report the views of the hon. Lady to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. I should also point out that the acting DPP's decision does not prevent anyone from bringing a private prosecution if he wishes to do so. That is right, and an important safeguard in cases in which it is felt that the courts should have the opportunity to reach a view.

Let me now deal with the subject of obscenity legislation in general.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Jack

Yes, at the risk of not being able to answer other hon. Members' questions.

Mr. Wolfson

My hon. Friend is now dealing with an extremely important issue. So far the debate has focused on the appalling obscenities of "Juliette", but the whole subject of pornography requires a legislative rethink. Many similar publications are just as dangerous and damaging as "Juliette", and that is why we want action from the Government.

Mr. Jack

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. In the remaining time, I hope to explain that we have a comprehensive range of legislation which deal with many aspects of obscenity and pornography; if I am not able to do so, I shall write to hon. Members.

The Obscene Publications Act 1959, on which attention is usually focused, is only one part of that comprehensive range of legislation. The Post Office Act 1953 forbids the sending of indecent or obscene articles through the post. The Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 prohibits the publication of comics depicting incidents of a repulsive or horrible—

Mrs. Ann Winterton

May I take up that point, which is vital to the argument? No one questions the fact that certain aspects of obscenity law are not strong. Obscenity law is like a patchwork quilt, strong in parts and extremely weak in others. The DPP was not prepared to prosecute the publisher of the book that we have been discussing because parts of the obscenity law are missing: that is the issue that we are addressing, and asking my hon. Friend the Minister to address.

Mr. Jack

It is only right for those who comment on our obscenity laws, and on pornography, to do so with a knowledge of all the controls that exist. Obscenity and pornography occur in many different guises, and I thought it right to make the House aware of the range of legislation. There are many other Acts, but time now forbids me from listing them all. Looking at the position in the round, I think that we can be said to have the toughest pornography controls in Europe, and I hope that the House will take some small comfort from that.

The operation of the Obscene Publications Act lies, I believe, at the heart of the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Rochdale. The main control over obscene publications is the 1959 Act, which was supplemented by further legislation in 1964. Its significance derives from its all-embracing nature, regardless of whether the requirements of other legislation are met. If a work is deemed to be obscene within the terms of the 1959 Act, and if the statutory defences are unsuccessful, its publication is an offence. The Act provides that any person who publishes an obscene article, or possesses it for publication for gain, commits an offence.

As well as providing for prosecution, the Act provides for the seizure and forfeiture of obscene articles by order of an magistrates court without a criminal prosecution. In cases of that sort, the court must be satisfied that the articles are obscene and kept for publication for gain, and that the person from whom they were seized has not shown cause why the articles should not be forfeited.

Hon. Members may be interested to learn that, in 1990, 174 people were prosecuted for offences under the Act, of whom 73 were convicted; and that, in 1991, 20,000 articles were the subject of successful seizure proceedings in the Metropolitan police district alone.

Criticism has been voiced this evening of the Obscene Publications Act. I hope that the figures demonstrate that the present legislation does have some effect. Equally, we recognise that it gives grounds for concern. There has sometimes been criticism of the "public good" defence, which is available in both prosecution and forfeiture proceedings and which applies if a defendant is able to prove that the publication of the article in question is justified as being for the public good, on the grounds that it is in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or other objects of general concern. Many hon. Members will recollect that it was the latter provisions that gave rise, in some celebrated cases in the past, to processions of expert witnesses called to attest to the literary or other merits of certain works.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Jack

I wonder whether my hon. Friend would allow me a few more moments in which to make a little progress?

However, the element in the 1959 Act that attracts most attention is the test of obscenity itself. The Act adopted, with slight variations, the already existing common law definition of obscenity. Section I provides: an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect, … is … if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it. This is a rigorous test. It is not sufficient to establish that those who are exposed to a work find it distressing or offensive. Rather, the prosecution is required to establish that the work has not just the potential but the tendency to corrupt or deprave. I know that hon. Members are interested in that aspect, so I felt it right to put on record the way that the law works.

Hon. Members have asked for reform of the law. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton referred to Gerald Howarth's Bill in the last Parliament. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), when speaking as a Home Office Minister, expressed his support for such a test in the debate on Gerald Howarth's Bill. It was argued that a work's offensiveness to a reasonable person is an easier test to apply. On that occasion, and on others, the Government demonstrated their support for amendments to the legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton very properly asked me why the Government were not initiating legislation. I refer her to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd) in which he said: Legislation on obscenity is by tradition left to private Members and the Government are reluctant—rightly, I believe—to set that tradition aside."—[Official Report, 15 December 1989; Vol. 163, c. 1372.] If my hon. Friend looks at a number of measures, she will find that not all of them have commanded the widespread support in the House that she suggested in her remarks.

Mr. Robathan

I was going to ask my hon. Friend when I first tried to intervene whether he intended to refer in more detail to "Juliette," which is the subject of the Adjournment debate. He may know that I spent about 15 years in the Army. I may have seen more pornography in barrack rooms than most hon. Members, and I can promise my hon. Friend that I have never seen anything in my life so depraved, disgusting and repulsive as this book.

Mr. Jack

Having taken the trouble to get hold of a copy, I can well understand my hon. Friend's remarks. I found the book extremely difficult to read. I can well understand why its contents would shock an individual who read it. However, my task this evening is to put in context the way in which our obscenity laws work and to show that, although this area of our law has come under attack and question this evening, a number of well-rounded measures exist to deal with pornography as it occurs.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Can the Minister give an undertaking that the Government would support a private Member's Bill along those lines?

Mr. Jack

I would not want to say that the Government would support something that my hon. Friend describes as "a private Member's Bill along those lines." I am sure that he will understand—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.