HC Deb 09 July 1992 vol 211 cc678-89

6.6 am

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on the subject of action against pornography. Pornography is a subject of great concern to my constituents, who often raise it when they write to me and when I meet them.

I am disappointed to see that no Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament has seen fit to attend this important debate.

Before I talk about the action against pornography which I propose, let me first put the matter in context. Some people think that the 1960s were a golden age, but I believe that they were a decade when our country embarked upon a moral decline which has not yet ended. The time has come to reverse that decline and to rediscover the Christian values upon which our society should be based.

In the 1960s, we saw the breakdown of respect between men and women and between parents and children; there was a breakdown of respect for the aged and a general breakdown of respect for our fellow citizens and for their persons and property. Since then there has been an unacceptable rise in crime of all kinds, and a horrifying increase in teenage pregnancies, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health referred in her excellent document, "Health of the Nation" published yesterday.

Child abuse causes us all great concern nowadays, the number of births outside marriage has soared from 51,000 in 1961 to 235,000 in 1991, and the number of divorces rose from 27,000 in 1961 to 167,000 in 1990. Also some people now believe homosexual behaviour to be just as normal as heterosexual behaviour.

What has been the cause of all this? There are many causes, but two are especially significant. One is the permissive ideas which got into the education system in the 1960s, and the other is the increasing availability, and the increasingly disgusting character, of pornography.

Permissive ideas still exist in the education system—in schools, in local education authorities and in training colleges, but I am optimistic that the Government's reforms are beginning to put things right. But what of pornography? It is no accident that in the 1960s television became widely available in homes throughout the land. Those who remember television in those days, as I do, cannot fail to have noticed the steady and insidious increase in pornography and violence which has been fed into the living rooms of our nation over the past 30 years.

Television producers argue that they merely reflect public attitudes. I say that television is the most powerful medium ever invented for changing attitudes and moulding ideas. Anyone who doubts that should consider the thousands of pounds that companies are willing to pay for a few seconds of television advertising.

I well remember the "Lady Chatterley's Lover" trial in the 1960s. It concerned a book, but that case had an influence on television, films, newspapers, magazines and, more recently videotapes. I recall the legal arguments about that book's artistic merits, and the venerable witnesses called by the defence. However. I have no doubt that that case gave the green light to the pornographers. It showed them that there were vast profits to be made from peddling their wares in the United Kingdom. In this country today. pornography is a multi-million pound industry.

I am as much in favour of commercial enterprise as anyone on these Benches, and I believe that the freedom of the individual is the essential foundation of our society. There is, however, a difference between freedom and licence. In any civilised society, it is necessary to balance the freedom of the individual against the public good—so we were right to ban publications calculated to incite racial hatred.

It is often argued that pornography should be allowed unless it can be shown that it causes deviant behaviour. That is the difficulty with the "deprave and corrupt" test found in section 1 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959. In 1990, the Home Office Commissioned Messrs Howitt and Cumberbatch to inquire into the connection between pornography and deviant behaviour. Their report was inconclusive. Paragraph 3 of their conclusions stated: the recording of sexual crimes lacks the detail which would help understanding of changes over time while evidence on patterns in hard core pornography and their possible relationship to sexual offences is virtually non-existent. Paragraph 5 stated: There has been little attempt to categorise pornography into types which may be related to possible specific effects. We also lack any understanding of the ways in which the symbolic messages of pornography are communicated and interpreted by the reader or viewer. Research evidence in this area could be easily obtained. I find persuasive the following passages from an article by Dr. Raymond Wyre, a specialist in the treatment of sex offenders, published in The Scotsman on 4 April 1991: The cause and effect argument can never be conclusive. Most men have seen pornography, and most men will not afterwards go out and rape women. Pornography is not the cause of the problem, it is part of the problem … In working with sex offenders over 15 years, it is impossible not to believe that pornography plays a part in sexual violence. As we constantly confront sex offenders about their behaviour, they display a wide range of distorted views that they then use to excuse their behaviour, justify their actions, blame the victim, and minimise the effect of their offending. They seek to make their own behaviour seem normal and interpret the behaviour of the victim as consent, rather than a survival strategy. Pornography legitimises these views. Dr. Wyre concluded: So, in the case of pornography, I believe that there is overwhelming evidence that there is a connection between offending behaviour, sexual aggression, and sexist attitudes. It is no mere coincidence that pornography is almost always found in the homes of rapists and serious sex offenders. Whether or not Dr. Wyre is right, I do not think that it is necessary to establish that pornography causes deviant behaviour, because I have no doubt that pornography coarsens and degrades our society and has an insidious and corrosive effect on us all.

It does not matter what time of day we buy or see that material; it affects us whether we are young or old; it does not matter whether we have to pass a notice that warns us before we go to buy the material. The question is whether, and to what extent, pornography should be banned. That is a question of balance between, on the one hand, the protection of society against degradation and corruption and, on the other, the freedom of the pornographers to make vast profits and the freedom of the individual purchaser to engage in a pursuit which, at the very least, is to be discouraged.

I do not think that those particular freedoms are worth protecting. The Government have a right and a duty to take action not only against the worst and most revolting examples, but also against material that is euphemistically described as "soft porn". Lest it should be thought that the Government have been idle in the matter, I pay tribute to the Government for the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981; the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, which empowers local authorities to adopt a licensing system for sex shops; the Cinematograph (Amendment) Act 1982; the Video Recordings Act 1984; the Criminal Justice Act 1988; the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Broadcasting Act 1990.

1 also pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury), my hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill), for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg), for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) and to the work of Mr. Gerald Howarth and Mr. Andrew Stewart who are no longer Members of Parliament.

They know—and I share their view—that in the battle against pornography we are dealing with an industry, which I would prefer to call a racket, which is well financed, well organised and very ingenious. We cannot afford to let it win the battle. We must equip our law enforcement agencies with the legal tools and backing that they need. Above all, the House must show leadership. We must make it clear that the activities of the pornography industry will not be tolerated.

Having read the debates on the subject before this one, I must say that I am concerned by the flippant attitude to the matter displayed by some members of my sex and, indeed,, by some members of my party. Their very considerable talents, wittingly or unwittingly, have served the interests of the merchants of degradation.

If the Broadcasting Act 1990 is adequate, how is it possible that BBC2 screened a programme called "Do the Right Thing" on 28 June 1992 and Channel 4 screened a programme entitled "Bill Hicks-Relentless" on 4 May 1992? In both those programmes language was used that was so revolting that I will not read it out as I do not wish to turn Hansard into an obscene publication. I have, however, given a copy to my hon. Friend the Minister.

We must give the Broadcasting Standards Council our full support so that, in next year's annual report, we will not read what we have read in this year's report. At page 26, the Commission says that it chose one week when it monitored all television programmes and that its analysis showed that bad language had been used in 112 programmes (40 per cent. of all programmes analysed) and on 833 occasions. At page 29 of the report, we find that One in ten of all the programmes analysed contained some element of sexual activity, and just under one-quarter of all scenes portrayed coital acts. When the BBC charter and the commercial franchises come up for review, let those who are responsible for those broadcasting organisations be in no doubt that their conduct between now and then will be watched very carefully by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

If the Video Recordings Act 1984 is adequate, how is it possible that the British Board of Film Classification has given a certificate to a video called "Gay Man's Guide to Safer Sex"? It purports to be an educational video, but in reality it is as lewd and disgusting a publication as one would ever be likely to see. If the Obscene Publications Act 1959 is adequate, how is it possible to pick up a family newspaper almost every day of the week and see in it written and visual material which one would have had to go to the top shelf of a seedy newsagent's to find 10 years ago? If the Obscene Publications Act 1959 is effective, how is it possible to print and distribute a book so disgusting that no fewer than 87 hon. Members have signed early-day motion 312 about it? I will not name the book or its publisher because I do not wish to advertise it, but I shall read the rest of the early-day motion. It states: this House deplores the publication of that book, and— notes with deep concern that this book both glorifies and positively advocates the torture, rape and murder of babies, children and adult women and men including the inmates of prisons and patients in mental hospitals; regrets that the Director of Public Prosecutions decided that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute the publishers of this book under the terms of the Obscene Publications Act 1959; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government urgently to review the laws on obscenity and pornography to ensure that the desire of this House to encourage freedom of speech is balanced by the responsibility which it has to protect children, women and men from degradation and violence. We need to introduce a new definition of obscenity, and look again at Gerald Howarth's 1987 Bill. I would be quite willing to introduce a new Bill, but that should not be a matter for private Members. This is an important matter for the moral health of the nation. The 1982 legislation to control sex shops was a Government Bill, and the Government should bring forward further legislation. In the meantime, I urge the Government to use section 3 of the 1959—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying now, referring to future legislation. This is not the time to discuss that. I am advised by the Clerk that incidental reference is allowed, but the hon. Gentleman must not stray too far.

Mr. Stephen

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In the meantime, I urge the Government to use section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which enables a constable to apply to a magistrate for a warrant to search premises and seize material which he has reasonable grounds to believe to be contrary to that Act. He must bring that material before a magistrate, and the magistrate can then decide whether it is contrary to the Act, and, if so satisfied, order that it be forfeited.

In that way, one will avoid two problems which one encounters using section 2 of the Act to prosecute a person. First, the question whether the material is or is not obscene has to be decided according to the civil standard —on the balance of probabilities—not the criminal standard—beyond reasonable doubt. Secondly, juries are not involved. These two factors of the difficulty of proving to the criminal standard and of satisfying juries make prosecutions under the 1959 Act so difficult.

I tabled a parliamentary question to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General about the matter. He said that he did not think it appropriate to use section 3 of the Act against the book to which early-day motion 312 refers. I cannot understand that. Taking essentially civil proceedings to confiscate pornographic literature is a different matter from taking criminal proceedings to impose criminal penalties on a person or company.

The difficulty with seizing pornographic material under section 3 is logistic. The police would have to bring in many tonnes of the material. I suggest that private contractors could be used, as they are used for wheel clamping and the management of prisons. We need a company which knows the printing, publishing and distribution industry, will know where to go to find the material and could bring the material before magistrates and secure orders for confiscation. The intervention of the constable would be necessary only for the execution of the warrant.

If the material is found to be pornographic, the court should order the pornographer to pay the costs of the private contractor in confiscating the material. There should also be no question of the pornographer being able to claim tax relief in respect of the expenditure that he incurred to print, store or do anything else with the pornographic material.

I will not go into the European dimension, except to say that pornography is so readily available in Germany, Holland and other parts of the continent that it is vital to do what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House a short while ago he intended do and make sure that our own border controls are maintained.

I am grateful to the House for listening to me. I should like to conclude with two short quotations. The first is from The Guardian of 8 May 1990, from a man who was introduced to pornography in the 1960s and has since become a reformed character: Some three years on from my decision, I cannot deny that I am still sometimes attracted to pornography. But mostly, I now feel that it is not only unappealing to me but also degrading and dangerous to women. I no longer feel shame or guilt about having used it, although I do feel sad and angry at how it has affected me. The second quotation is from the sermon which the Archbishop of Canterbury delivered to us all at St. Margaret's church on the occasion of the opening of this, my first Parliament. He said: I ask for recognition that the sense of shared values, so vital to long-term wellbeing, derives from our Christian heritage; I ask that we should not be ashamed to declare our loyalty to Christ in this nation. If we do so, I believe that we will acknowledge that human life, and hence the ordering of society through Parliamentary Law, has a religious and spiritual dimension which is a source of hope.

6.28 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Jack)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) on securing this important debate and on the clear and powerful way in which he put his case on a subject which matters a great deal to him and to many millions of people. He expressed his views with considerable clarity and I listened to him carefully. His remarks were made in the context of a view of the state of the nation's morals and of some of the influences that have affected them, especially in the 1960s. I noted a powerful plea about television in his introductory remarks. I agree that television is a powerful medium of communication, with considerable ability to influence people.

I also noted my hon. Friend's argument about advertising. He was generous to the Government about what they have done and I hope that he will take some comfort from the fact that the Government have set up the Broadcasting Standards Council and enabled, for the first time, an independent voice to have its say on standards in television.

I want to put on the record the Government's comprehensive view of pornography because, in consider-ing parts of the law, there is a danger that we may Miss the whole picture of control. I also believe in the power of people and of public opinion. I hope that those who read my hon. Friend's words and this debate will take comfort from the fact that there is now an outlet for their views, as the Broadcasting Standards Council can listen to them.

I thank my hon. Friend for his courtesy in giving me a copy of the script of the television programmes which so troubled him and, I am sure, many millions of viewers. That is precisely the sort of subject on which the council should receive letters—and other forms of appropriate representation—if people feel that it is not reacting.

It may be useful for me to list the subjects that I intend to cover. They will include the book that my hon. Friend mentioned, and I shall try to deal with the decisions not to prosecute its publishers. I shall consider the legal controls on obscenity and the implications of the single market for our controls. My hon. Friend mentioned Europe, and it is worth talking for a few moments on that subject. I shall also mention the ways in which he suggested that we might amend the Obscene Publications Act 1959, and deal with the Government's attitude to legislation and reform of the law. I hope that he will not find my remarks unsympathetic. Not unnaturally, I shall also reflect on that which has gone before.

One difficulty in discussing pornography is that it is sometimes difficult to decide what is meant by the term. In legal terms, the word has no significance, but for an individual it can encompass anything, from pictures of scantily dressed women, which appear in certain newspapers and which some people may dismiss as merely risible or titallating, to unspeakably vile child porno-graphy, which amounts to a real sexual abuse of children. My hon. Friend referred to that, and I understand his point about the way in which some of that material is handled by newspapers. He was right to draw attention to that.

The Government's task, and indeed the task of the House, is to ensure that the law is strong enough to catch the worst material, while safeguarding the rights of citizens to see, read, write and do what they wish, without an oppressive level of state censorship or intervention.

Where precisely the boundary should be drawn between material which is caught by the law and material which is not is still a difficult question, and one which can never be resolved to every body's satisfaction. However, it is clear that many hon. Members believe that the law is balanced too much in favour of the pornographer and not enough in favour of the ordinary, decent citizen. On balance, the Government agree with that view and believe that the law could with advantage be tightened. That is why, when there have been clear cases of gaps in the law on videos, indecent displays, broadcasting and child pornography, the Government have been only too willing to introduce or actively support legislation to plug those gaps. However, it is more difficult fundamentally to change the whole basis on which the law operates, and I hope to consider that aspect in greater detail later in my speech.

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I mention the title of the book in question. I do not want to advertise it any more than he does, but it was the subject of an Adjournment debate and, for the sake of clarity, I must mention it. The book, as my hon. Friend knows, is called "Juliette" and that earlier debate revealed hon. Members' passion and feeling about it.

I asked to see a copy of the book and was revolted by the language which it contained. I can tell my hon. Friend unequivocally that I would not have used my money to buy it. I can appreciate the sensitivities that it shocks. Anyone who thought that it was an easy, titillating read is in for a rude and nasty shock. It is a disgusting publication.

My hon. Friend referred to the actions of the Director of Public Prosecutions in relation to the book. As I said last week in the Adjournment debate, last December it was decided not to prosecute the publishers on the ground that there was insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction. I appreciate hon. Members' concern at that decision. As my hon. Friend probably gathers from my description of the book, I share some of their views.

However, it would be quite wrong for me or for any Minister to attempt to persuade the DPP to prosecute in a case where she did not believe that she would be justified in doing so. It is right that the DPP should not seek to prosecute in cases where, after detailed consideration, she concluded that there was insufficient evidence for a conviction. Nevertheless, as I promised last week, I have reported the concerns of hon. Members to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I know that he has taken careful note of what was said in that debate.

My hon. Friend said that the book highlighted a weakness in our law, because the Obscene Publications Act 1959 was unable to catch it. He deduced that that Act must be inadequate. As I have said before, I have some sympathy with that view. But it is not easy to go on to say that X is the cause of the weakness and Y is the solution. A decision whether to prosecute in a particular case can be based on one of a number of considerations touching on the likely chances of success.

In the case of a possible prosecution of a book under the 1959 Act, it must first be decided what the likely readership of the book is—will it, for example, fall into the hands of children? Then there must be an assessment of whether the book has a tendency to deprave and corrupt that likely readership. The chances of a successful public-good defence must also be evaluated. Only if the DPP believes, after weighing up those different factors, that there is a realistic prospect of conviction, taking account of any possible defence or any other relevant factors, can she properly decide to prosecute. That is, of course, the criterion that she applies to all offences.

Whatever change might be made in the law, no one can guarantee that a particular publication would be caught by it and there would inevitably be some who would be disappointed that the law was not as effective as they had expected. Even if the DPP thought that a case was suitable for prosecution, in the end everything would still depend on the decision of the particular jury which heard the case.

I believe that, last week, my hon. Friend raised the possibility of the book being available in prisons. Concern was expressed about the possibility of that publication circulating freely in prisons, perhaps even among sex offenders. I understand that it would be contrary to our international human rights obligations to enforce an arbitrary ban on the circulation within prison of material which was legally available outside. However, a prison governor has a discretion under Home Office standing order No. 4(b)(23) to withdraw or withhold any book if he considers that its contents could present a threat to good order and discipline in the prison, or is likely to have an adverse effect on an inmate from a medical point of view. It is for individual prison governors to decide whether "Juliette" comes within the terms of the standing order.

My hon. Friend rightly spoke of seizure of materials. He and others have asked why some action cannot be taken to seize "Juliette" under the provisions of section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act. My hon. Friend tabled a question on this, to which he referred. Forfeiture proceedings would not be appropriate because, after the book was seized, the magistrates would have to address precisely the same issues as to whether the work had a tendency to deprave and corrupt which a court would consider on a prosecution and about which the DPP had already come to a view.

Mr. Stephen

The point I was making was that the magistrates would determine the matter according to a different standard of proof. If they were not being asked to convict somebody of a criminal offence, the standard of proof applicable would be the civil standard. Furthermore, no jury would be involved.

Mr. Jack

I note what my hon. Friend says, and I shall give a little more detail about success in seizures, which illustrates the effectiveness of that point in general terms, although I note the terms in which he questions the use of that part of the Obscene Publications Act in respect of this book. It is important that the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is drawn not only to those remarks but to concerns about this aspect of the law.

During the Adjournment debate on this subject instigated by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms. Lynne), I wa anxious to allow as many hon. Members as possible to have their say. One of the problems that we faced was that we did not look at pornography in the round and at all the controls on it. If the House will bear with me, I shall try to remedy that deficiency. It is important that our discussions on pornography—my hon. Friend was kind enough to mention some of the Government's successes —should not be based solely on the Obscene Publications Act. It is one important element in a series of controls, both statutory and common law, that affect pornography.

Last week I mentioned the Post Office Act 1953 and the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 in some detail. There are also the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981, which makes it an offence to display indecent matter in a public place, the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, which allows local authorities to control sex shops, the Theatres Act 1968, the Video Recordings Act 1984, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and the Cinemas Act 1985, which provides for licensing or regulation of these forms of entertainment and prohibits obscene performances of plays. All those Acts play their part in the legislation to deal with pornography.

Most important, in my view the law properly contains very stringent provisions to protect children against sexual exploitation. In the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which my hon. Friend also mentioned, we reinforced earlier legislation—the Protection of Children Act 1978—so that it is now an offence to take, distribute, advertise, show or even possess any indecent film, photograph or video of a child under the age of 16.

In the Criminal Justice Act 1991, we implemented the Pigot report's recommendations and allowed children to give evidence by pre-recorded video. We plan to implement those provisions in October. More generally, the Government's commitment to the protection of children was demonstrated in the Children Act 1989, which provides that when a court is determining any question relating to the upbringing of a child, the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration.

The importation of obscene material is prohibited by the Customs Consolidation Act 1876, and that prohibition is enforced under the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979. Those measures amount to the toughest controls in Europe on pornography. It is an important package in total. I want to emphasise that the Government have played a significant role in either introducing or supporting many of the Acts that I mentioned. As I have made clear, the Government are committed to maintaining those tight controls.

I understand that there has been concern about the possible effects of the European single market and the abolition of trade barriers on our control of pornography. The first thing to stress is that our internal domestic controls will remain unchanged. The suggestion that we will be obliged to accept supposedly lax continental standards in relation to pornography are simply misplaced. That matter will continue to be judged by each European Community member state for itself, and the difference in standards between the United Kingdom and, for example, the Netherlands will remain.

Customs controls will be affected by the general move towards selective, intelligence-based customs checks, rather than random checks, but the Government have no intention of relaxing their prohibitions on the trade in obscene materials. No Community measure requires them to do so. There is increasing recognition across Europe of the danger presented by the worst kind of pornographic material. The Council of Europe has considered the problem of the distribution of video works having a violent, brutal or pornographic content and has issued advice to member states. Although the European Community has not formally considered that matter, when the opportunity has arisen we have made known our view that European Community members should act against pornographers, particularly against the trade in child pornography. I hope that my hon. Friend will take some comfort from that.

I noted my hon. Friend's comments on seizure. I was interested in his remarks on private contraction, and some of the solutions that he proposed. I should like to take time to reflect on those matters and then correspond with him.

Debates such as this inevitably dwell on weaknesses in the law. But as I said last week, whatever criticisms there may be, the existing legislation is effective, especially in controlling the worst sorts of pornographic videos and magazines. In 1990, the most recent year for which figures are available, 73 people were convicted of offences under the Obscene Publications Act. In 1991, 20,000 articles were forfeited under section 3 of that Act in the Metropolitan police district alone. I do not want to distresss hon. Members who may have returned from breakfast in the Tea Room by reading out a list of the titles of the material, but I shall be glad to supply that information to my hon. Friend so that he understands the seriousness with which we take such matters.

In practice, prosecutions seem to be successful when they concern explicit visual representations, in magazines or on video, of actual sexual intercourse or of such activities as cannibalism, bestiality, buggery, sadism and child abuse. However, it is possible that prosecutions purely in respect of written descriptions present greater difficulties. As my hon. Friend mentioned, ours is a visual society, and the written word is a less direct medium of communication, requiring some intellectual interpreta-tional effort by the reader. The impact of the written word is less immediate than images and there may be problems in persuading juries that the written word by itself has a tendency to deprave and corrupt. When deciding whether to prosecute, the Director of Public Prosecutions must take into account all those matters, in terms of their application in law.

At the heart of my hon. Friend's remarks was the question whether we should reform the Obscene Publications Act. The Government are not complacent about the matter. We believe that there is room for reform of the Act, but, hitherto, suggestions for reform have concentrated on replacing or supplementing the "deprave and corrupt" test, which is at the heart of the Act. I commend a Library note to my hon. Friend, who has considerable knowledge of the subject. It is a useful document and summarises the issues and work and the fate of some of the legislative attempts on this matter.

Mr. Stephen

I have seen it.

Mr. Jack

I am glad that my hon. Friend has seen it; I found it a useful work when I was preparing for this debate.

Problems have been encountered in previous legislation containing features such as a shopping list of activities or the test of gross offensiveness to a reasonable person. My hon. Friend mentioned that test in relation to the Bill which was introduced by Gerald Howarth but which, sadly, ran out of parliamentary time. If my hon. Friend reads the report of the debate on that Bill, he will find that the Government were supportive and helpful.

In many respects, the difficulties that the Bills encountered reflect the wider problem of legislation on this matter. For example, if one sought to compile a list of activities or subjects that must not be depicted, there would be considerable debate about what the list should contain. One would have to decide whether all depictions of a listed activity should be prohibited, no matter how oblique or inoffensive they were, or whether the restriction should be limited to a portrayal which is regarded as offensive—for instance, because of its blatant or titillating nature.

There would be particular difficulty in applying such a test to the written word. One might think, for example, that it would be right to ban a work which opens with satanism and includes insanity and child murder, or one which includes eyes being gouged out, hanging and suicide, or one which includes rape, cannibalism, murder and mutilation. But, of course, hon. Members will recognise these references as brief descriptions of "Macbeth", "King Lear" and "Titus Andronicus", all by our greatest playwright. I do not think that anyone seriously advocates a return to the days of Dr. Bowdler's edition of Shakespeare.

It could be argued that a work's offensiveness to a reasonable person is an easier test to apply. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage supported Gerald Howarth's Bill. We are also conscious, however, of the potential dangers that some would see to freedom of speech in making something illegal simply because it is offensive to some or even most people, and we would need to be sure that any future legislation did not open the way to an enforced political correctness before we could support it.

My hon. Friend asked why the Government have not acted in that area and he addressed the problems of deficiencies in the law. We did not introduce legislation. because of the difficulties that I described. I spoke about child obscenity and pornography on which we have moved decisively. There has never been a difference of opinion in the House on the need to act in such cases. It appears to be possible to distinguish between attempts to reform wide-ranging obscenity laws in a fundamental way and much more limited measures to deal with specific identifiable gaps in the law.

I hope that what I have said about our attempts to deal with the vile trade of child pornography illustrates the Government's willingness to act where there is a clear reason so to do. Such measures are important because we must ensure that children are not caught up in the production of pornography. As my hon. Friend said, we do not in any way want to fuel the activities of paedophiles. The extension of the obscenity legislation to broadcasting was a recognition of the indefensible situation whereby that most important and pervasive of media was the only one untouched by the law.

Legislation to reform the Obscene Publications Act is a different matter. Obscenity legislation is all-embracing and involves difficult questions of balanced priorities. on which there will be genuinely differing opinions about the sort of material that should be prohibited. By contrast, child pornography has no creditable proponents and can never be justified.

Pressure to reform the Obscene Publications Act takes a range of forms and the nature of the demands varies greatly. For instance, most people, thankfully, do not encounter really objectionable material such as "Juliette", but my constituants tell me and I know from my postbag that there is much concern about material widely available in our high streets.

Some people agree with my hon. Friend about the contents of our newspapers. Some of the correspondence that we receive argues that, because of the wide circulation of such material and its easy accessibility, it is a more serious threat to our national life than hard-core pornography because it acts insidiously in reinforcing sexist attitudes, which my hon. Friend mentioned. Other people, while seeking controls over what may lawfully he made available, are also legitimately concerned that any new measure should not oppress the rightly valued freedom of expression on which the vitality of our national cultural life so depends.

The difficulty is, therefore, that there is a wide continuum of possible measures, from the comparatively mild to the draconian, each of which has its own constituency. Unlike the specific measures to which I referred earlier, it is not enough to agree generally that the law needs changing. Any legislation must be based on a clear assessment of what material should be caught and what should be excluded.

There is an understandable but unspecific general concern that the law is inadequate, but there is no identifiable consensus on precisely what changes are necessary in the public interst and on the basis of which a Government would be justified in acting. I am aware of my hon. Friend's personal wish to introduce legislation, but it is from our search for common ground that we draw some of our reasons for continuing to believe that our predecessors' policy was right: legislation in this acutely difficult, sensitive and personal subject is essentially a matter of subjective judgment and personal conscience. We still feel that the traditional prerogative of private Member's business is the right way to proceed.

The fact that the House has so far not succeeded in agreeing on a general reform of the law is proof of the difficulties that we face. It does not mean that the Government have shut the door to reform. On the contrary, as our record shows and as I have sought to show this morning, we remain willing to support attempts at reform, provided that they seem to us to be desirable in themselves, enforceable and likely to commend parliamentary support.

My hon. Friend made his comments courteously, forcefully and clearly. I hope that the debate will continue the dialogue between us so that we can find grounds which might ultimately satisfy him and those whose views he represents.