HC Deb 26 April 1996 vol 276 cc692-711
Mr. Michael

I beg to move amendment No. 22, in page 5, line 7, after 'applies', insert 'or who encourages or incites the purchase of an article to which this section applies by or on behalf of a person under the age of sixteen, or who advertises such an article for sale in a way which appears to incite or condone the possession of such an article for violent purposes,'. The Bill deserves two cheers and it will earn a full three cheers if the amendment is accepted. The amendment is intended to take a grip on the incitement and advertising that have helped to encourage the knife culture, which we all abhor. This point was discussed on Second Reading, and I believe that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam was sympathetic to my argument then.

To explain my reference to three cheers, from the beginning, Labour has supported the Bill, which will take a grip on the carrying of knives. A second cheer went up when the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and the Minister accepted the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), the shadow Home Secretary, that we should ban the sale of knives to young people under the age of 16. However, we need to go beyond those measures, to take a grip on the knife culture in general, and in particular on those who profit from encouraging impressionable young people to take an unhealthy interest in offensive weapons. That is why we need a ban on the advertising of such weapons. I shall spell out the problem briefly.

On Second Reading, there was agreement on both sides that we needed to control the advertising of guns and weapons generally. Today, the amendment is designed to deal specifically with advertisements that encourage the knife culture. I raised the question of advertising and the mail order of weapons as long ago as the debates on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to which I proposed amendments, so it is not an issue that has suddenly come out of the blue.

Last year, the shadow Home Secretary brought to the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority some advertisements that included other weapons such as guns, but which also specifically included quite horrific weapons with titles such as "Rambo shortsword" and "SAS shoulder holster knife".

In response to the approach by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, Lord Rodgers, the chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority, stated specifically that the authority had no powers to ban such advertising. Therefore, since as long ago as the period before Second Reading, Ministers have known that legislation is the only way in which to ban such advertisements and it is disappointing that we have not yet got that point covered in law.

We cannot deal with the whole issue of the advertising of weapons and guns in the Bill, but we can agree to an amendment that would ban advertisements that are specific to the knife culture. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that such weapons can have no legitimate use; there can be no legitimate reason for wandering the streets with something called an "SAS shoulder holster knife" or a "Rambo shortsword".

Mr. Merchant

The hon. Gentleman will remember that we exchanged words on this subject in Committee; we may not have been talking on quite the same subject then. Will he confirm—I have great sympathy for his objective—that it is possible under existing ASA arrangements and the Committee of Advertising Practice codes to prevent advertisements that appeal to the immature or unstable mind or are "emotive or aggressive"? That would catch many of the advertisements to which he refers.

Mr. Michael

No, it would not. The code would have an effect on those who observe the code of conduct. It might have an effect on the responsible end of the press. I am sure that The Times, The Guardian and other major newspapers take note of requirements set down in guidance from the Advertising Standards Authority, but the code does not actually stop anyone putting in such advertisements. Nothing illegal is involved; people do not have to take note of the code. I shall develop that point in a moment, with specific reference to what has been said by the ASA.

The ASA confirmed, after my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn referred to it the advertisements I mentioned, that it was not considered appropriate to take action on them. It referred them to a working party, and that working party may come up with new words or may strengthen the code of conduct, but that will not control the type of advertisements and virtual incitement that I am talking about.

As I said, we raised the issue on Second Reading, when it was made clear that the ASA was not able to ban advertisements that encouraged people to purchase weapons for the purpose of violence. I make it clear that we are not talking about advertisements in relation to country sports and things of that sort. We are talking about the wording to which I have referred, which is clearly not about sporting or legitimate activities.

On Second Reading and in Committee, I quoted a letter from the ASA in reply to our initial approach to it. The letter states: It is important to be clear that the Advertising Standards Authority is not in a position to ban such advertisements. That sentence from the ASA goes to the heart of the question raised by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant). It is clear from the authority itself that it does not have the power to do what the House wants, and that is why an amendment is needed to achieve the desired result. I should perhaps make it clear that that statement was authoritative, because it came from Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, who is chairman of the ASA.

Mr. Merchant

I do not want to labour the point, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman entirely appreciates how the ASA works in practice. I was very involved in the advertising industry and had experience of the ASA. The ASA's latest publication, which deals with its research on this subject, says that companies whose advertising is found to be unacceptable or questionable will be asked to make any necessary amendments. I appreciate that that does not have the force of law, but does the hon. Gentleman not accept that in practice, the ASA's authority is extremely strong in the advertising industry? In 99 per cent. of cases, what it decides to do will be followed by the industry.

Mr. Michael

The hon. Gentleman destroys his own case by the words that he quotes. The ASA says that companies "will be asked" to change their advertising. In view of the wording used in advertisements to which I have referred and the motivation of people who would be willing to put such advertisements in public periodicals, I do not believe that such people will respond to being asked rather nicely to amend the wording that they use. That is simply not good enough.

If the hon. Gentleman's own words are not sufficient to destroy his case, I quote again the very specific and authoritative statement by the chairman of the ASA. He says: It is important to be clear that the Advertising Standards Authority is not in a position to ban such advertisements. That is absolutely clear and specific.

Sir Michael Shersby

I am very sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's line of argument. Does he agree that many of the advertisements for these horrible knives appear in fringe magazines of one kind and another, which probably never even cross the doorstep of the Advertising Standards Authority, but which are circulated to groups of people whom the advertisers believe will buy the product?

Mr. Michael

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In a conversation that I had with members of the Advertising Standards Authority, they commented on the vast amount of advertising there is and said that it was totally impossible to monitor all of it. It is impossible for them to monitor all mainstream advertising, never mind the fringe periodicals to which the hon. Gentleman refers He is precisely right.

There are vulnerable people who can easily be encouraged in the culture of violence and the knife culture, which give rise to such concern. We are talking about a fringe activity, not about an activity involving masses of people. However, it is those who are vulnerable in some ways and who can become dangerous in other ways if their predilections are encouraged who are the target of fringe advertising. That advertising is my target in the amendment. The hon. Members for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) and for Sutton and Cheam are, I believe, sympathetic to that point.

If we were talking about advertisements that appear in major, large-circulation periodicals, there would be no great difficulty, because the pressure of the ASA would discourage them from continuing to accept such advertisements. However, the hon. Member for Uxbridge is absolutely right to say that that is not the target of the amendment. But without the amendment, as Lord Rodgers made clear, the target that we have in mind cannot be tackled by the ASA.

In Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill in 1994, in response to a question of mine, the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), said: The British code of advertising practice includes special provisions on the advertising of weapons so that advertisements for weapons, such as knives, neither condone nor incite violent behaviour". That is what the hon. Member for Beckenham was referring to, but we now know that the Minister was wrong, because the code cannot extend to the sort of fringe periodicals that are likely to do the damage, because they are circulated in the type of environment that encourages the knife culture.

11.30 am

The Minister of State continued: Where advertisements are found to contravene the codes, the Advertising Standards Authority can take steps to rectify the situation as appropriate."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 15 March 1994; c. 1357.] We now know that the powers of the ASA are not appropriate, but clearly at that time the Minister thought that something should be done about the matter, and erroneously believed that the ASA had the power to intervene. As I said, the ASA has made it clear that it does not have that capacity.

In March, I asked the authority what action it had taken on various advertisements referred to it by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn. The answer was simply that the matter had been referred to a working party. I do not see the point of referring a matter to a working party if the authority does not have the power to deal with those specific issues and the periodicals that advertise such items.

We would end up with a tougher code enjoining The Guardian and The Times in even stricter terms to observe the standards that they observe already. That is patently useless in tackling the development of the knife culture.

There are advertisements generally available in this country that find their way all too easily to impressionable young people, displaying illustrations of weapons that no one could reasonably want for legitimate purposes. They incite people to purchase such weapons for all the wrong reasons. Such advertising should be brought under control, and my amendment at least addresses that specific problem.

Mr. Nicholas Baker

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is after, but how can he establish whether a generally available advertisement is directed at people under 16? Would it not be more straightforward to say that he really wants to ban advertisements of all kinds?

Mr. Michael

No, but I do want to ban advertisements that encourage the carrying of articles for an offensive or violent purpose, and that is what the amendment would do. The point is that those who use such advertising are seeking impressionable people, especially impressionable young people. That is where the tap ought to be turned off, and that is what my amendment would do.

The clause as it stands puts the onus on those in the retail trade, especially people who specialise in country sports, to ensure that they do not sell weapons to young people under 16. It is right that they should have that responsibility, but the stable door is still left wide open on mail order. There is no control over the type of articles advertised that can be purchased by youngsters through mail order. That is why the amendment is needed.

That may be irresponsible advertising, and it is not controlled. The mail order advertisers are not controlled as the Bill will control the retail trade in general, so there is a wide gap in the provisions that we are passing. We have put the onus on the retail trade, which will put an additional pressure on many responsible shops, and we think it right to do so, but it is surely also right to put the onus on advertisers not to advertise weapons of the type that I have described.

The clause as it stands says: Any person who sells to a person under the age of sixteen years an article to which this section applies"— that would now be an article or a weapon— shall be guilty of an offence liable … to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or a fine not exceeding level 5". The amendment seeks three things. First, it would place a similar penalty on a person who encouraged or incited the purchase of such a weapon. That is straightforward. People should not incite youngsters to obtain and carry weapons.

Secondly, the amendment would make it a punishable offence to buy a weapon on behalf of a youngster under 16. Surely that is a sensible extension of the requirement. Thirdly, it would make it a punishable offence to advertise such an article for sale in a way which appears to incite or condone the possession of such an article for violent purposes". That would not stop the advertising or sale to adults of items needed for legitimate activities such as work or fishing or whatever; it would concentrate the weight of the legislation on the nature of advertisements that include words that appear to make violence attractive or to incite those who are interested in violence.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam on bringing the Bill before the House, and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have supported it. We are tackling a serious problem, and we need to go behind that problem to the culture that appears to encourage people, especially young people, to become involved in carrying weapons, and potentially in actual violence. I hope that my amendment will attract support throughout the House and that the Minister will accept it.

Sir Michael Shersby

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), and I have considerable sympathy for what he said. He touched on an important subject, of which many hon. Members will have had no experience, because they do not come into contact with the type of publication that he was talking about.

Mr. Michael

May I make it clear that I—and,I am sure, the hon. Gentleman himself and my hon. Friends—have come across such periodicals only in the course of research?

Sir Michael Shersby

I am sure that that is the case.

I shall tell the House about an experience that I had two or three years ago, when the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation drew my attention to an advertisement that, if I remember rightly, appeared in one or two of the east London local papers. It was for a commando knife made of carbon fibre, complete with blood channels, which was described as an ideal Christmas present. It was said that it could be used as a letter opener.

The advertiser did not give his address, simply a telephone number, but it was made clear that one could purchase the knife by using a Visa card. The chairman of the federation and I set out to track down the address of the advertiser, and used all the legitimate channels open to us, but we could not find it. The telephone number was ex-directory.

We therefore decided to purchase the article to see what was being offered. I still have mine locked up in a safe as an example of such terrible weapons. We referred the matter to the Home Secretary, who was extremely concerned about it. An individual was clearly advertising a weapon that had only one purpose—to kill. It could certainly not by any stretch of the imagination be described as a letter opener. If I tried to bring mine into the House today, I think that you would instantly have me incarcerated in the Clock Tower, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a serious and dangerous weapon.

Since then, I have seen a number of other examples of such items, often advertised in the fliers that are inserted in local newspapers. Newspaper proprietors may not be aware of the detailed contents of the fliers; they are interested only in the business of circulating them in the newspaper. Therefore, they can reach a wide variety of people, many of whom will be young. Other advertisements appear in what I would describe as fringe periodicals of one kind or another, which are sometimes issued free with newspapers. They advertise a horrifying variety of articles that no law-abiding citizen would want to possess. As has been pointed out, such articles are particularly attractive to young people—particularly men between the ages of 16 and 18 who are becoming interested in knives, guns and things of that nature.

We must address that problem. It is very difficult to deal with because, as I said by way of intervention earlier, the advertisements and fliers do not always come to the attention of respectable and distinguished bodies such as the Advertising Standards Authority or the Committee of Advertising Practice, which deal with such matters in a practical and a sensible manner. The advertisements and fliers in question often appear on the fringes of society. But they advertise equipment—certainly knives and other dangerous articles—that has only one purpose: to kill human beings.

I realise that it is a difficult problem to resolve. However, I express my strong support for the arguments advanced by the hon. Gentleman. He makes a good point, which needs to be addressed—although I do not underestimate the difficulties of doing so.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister not to accept amendment No. 22. I understand exactly what its supporters seek to do. However, I fear that if we accepted the amendment, we would not achieve the results that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) and the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) seek. In accepting the amendment, we would be going down the slippery slope of restricting freedom of expression.

I take the point that the literature in question does not constitute a very pleasant form of expression—I find the advertisements as offensive as anyone else does. Nevertheless, we must not restrict people's rights to express their views and to advertise products. That goes to the heart of our freedom in this country. We restrict that freedom very reluctantly. We do so in the case of pornography and indecent material, and the hon. Gentleman is asking for a similar restriction of freedom in this area.

Mr. Michael

I find it difficult to believe what I am hearing. The hon. Gentleman is saying that allowing people to advertise weapons in a way that incites violence is protecting freedom of speech. Does he seriously mean what he is saying?

Mr. Atkinson

I am saying exactly that. In this country, people have a right to publish their views—provided that those views are not indecent or restricted by the laws of libel—however offensive they may be. All hon. Members can think of things that we find offensive and would like to restrict or ban. I might like to ban Labour party political broadcasts, but I cannot do that because the Labour party has a right to televise those broadcasts.

The hon. Gentleman must understand that he is going down a very dangerous road. If he had introduced such a measure in this place in the 19th century, virtually every hon. Member on these Benches would have attacked him vehemently. We must be careful not to take away people's freedoms. We should do so only if we could prove that. by accepting the hon. Gentleman's amendment, we could solve the problem. Clearly. that is not the case.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge said, weapons such as Rambo shoulder holsters are advertised in fliers. It is a sinister and subtle mail order trade, which does not reach most young men aged between 16 and 18 who are the targets of the legislation. Such material is sent to those rather curious people who like to collect military equipment and memorabilia. I do not think that such people are the cause of violence on the streets or the targets of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland).

If we could prove conclusively that restricting those fliers would have a positive impact on violence on the streets, I might consider removing people's rights of expression. However, that is not the case. Those who use such weapons on the streets are not collectors; they acquire knives and carry them for violent and illegal purposes, and the legislation is correct to crack down on that practice.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister not to restrict freedom of expression. If we were to restrict the advertising of a Rambo shoulder holster knife, it would be an easy and logical next step to ban films and television programmes about Rambo-type characters. We must not go down the road of censorship and restriction of expression. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister and the House not to accept the amendment.

Sir Michael Shersby

I ask my hon. Friend to clarify his remarks. I agree completely that the House should not do anything to restrict the lawful, reasonable and sensible expression of opinion by any individual. I think that everyone present accepts that. However, we are not talking about that: we are talking about those who advertise dangerous articles, the only purpose of which is to kill other human beings. We are not talking about confining people's legitimate expression of opinion: we are talking about those who offer horrible knives for sale, usually in a covert manner. As I explained earlier, they often do not provide their address and operate through ex-directory telephone numbers. They ensure that the material that they produce is directed at the people who are responsible for many of the problems with which we are dealing today.

I fully accept that it is not an easy matter to resolve. However, I do not think that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth said anything that would constitute a restriction on the legitimate rights of individuals to express their views. He is talking about the advertising of weapons to young people who may purchase them. As a result, we may then read in the newspapers, see on television or hear on the radio that someone has lost his or her life.

11.45 am
Mr. Atkinson

My hon. Friend reinforces my point: I do not believe that the leaflets that advertise those products covertly get into the hands of young people. They do not. The products are sold to collectors of military memorabilia and to the patrons of those sorts of establishments, who could not sell those weapons to people under a certain age, according to the terms of the Bill. Such people constitute a curious minority.

The advertisements do not appear in reputable magazines that are widely available around the country, because those magazines are covered by the Advertising Standards Authority code of practice. Such advertisements do not appear in newspapers, because newspapers also adhere to that code. The advertisements appear in small backstreet fliers that are circulated discreetly among collectors of those sorts of items. I do not believe that they get into the hands of the people whom the Bill is targeting. That is my argument.

If such advertisements were encouraging young people at large to commit acts of violence, I would take a different view. However, we must not restrict people's right of freedom of expression—no matter how undesirable that expression may be—unless we are absolutely certain that, by removing that freedom, we shall achieve our aim. I urge the House not to support the amendment because it will not do that.

Mr. Merchant

I have great sympathy with the objective of the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) in moving the amendment. It is entirely laudable that he wishes to restrict the sorts of advertisements to which he referred, which are clearly harmful and go against the principle of the Bill. However, I part company with him on the means of achieving that aim.

I believe that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands—I do not suggest that he has any intention to mislead—the way in which the Advertising Standards Authority and the self-regulatory system in advertising work. I believe also that his quotation from the letter that he received—although I am sure that the quotation is accurate—is not a fair reflection of the way in which the ASA works in practice.

Mr. Michael

The day before we debated the issues in Committee, I had a long conversation with an official of the Advertising Standards Authority. As a result of that conversation. I am absolutely certain—without any shadow of doubt—that I have quoted Lord Rodgers' statement absolutely correctly. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman understands that it is a very specific statement, which has been checked carefully.

Mr. Merchant

If I may continue to describe how the ASA works, I shall answer the hon. Gentlemen's question. The ASA was originally established by the advertising industry, but is an independent body, and its authority is probably greater than that of any other self-regulatory body. The hon. Gentleman is correct when he says that the ASA does not have the force of law, which is palpably true. He is also right to say that the ASA could not ban and prevent by law every advertisement. I do not challenge that point, but seek to illustrate that the effect of a firm line by the ASA is equivalent to that of the hon. Gentleman's amendment.

As a result of a complaint or on its own initiative, the ASA will examine an advertisement in detail. If it breaks the code of practice—and as I said in my intervention, any advertisement of a kind to which the hon. Gentleman referred would do so—the authority can take action. The hon. Gentleman attempted to suggest that the ASA just asks nicely for an advertisement to be withdrawn, but does nothing if that request is ignored. From my past experience in the industry, I know that if the ASA makes such a request, one can be pretty certain that the vast majority of the industry will instantly accede.

Mr. Michael

The hon. Gentleman entirely misses the point. Responsible organisations do not need the ASA's advice in such circumstances. If there is a slip-up and an unacceptable advertisement gets through the net, the media will respond to an ASA request. We are concerned not about responsible organisations, but about advertisers and periodicals that do not give a toss for the authority's views, which makes the amendment necessary. Does not the hon. Gentleman understand?

Mr. Merchant

I entirely understand, and if the hon. Gentleman is patient—and I do not intend to delay the House long—I shall answer his point specifically. We must deal first with the vast majority of advertising, and that comes under the scope of the ASA. One passes laws to cover an entire subject, not one small part.

Mr. Michael

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Merchant

No, because I know the point that is exercising the hon. Gentleman and I shall answer it.

It is important to understand the whole subject. If a firm advertises wrongly, in a way that would upset the hon. Gentleman, me or the ASA, the authority can deal with and bring sanctions to bear against the people involved at every stage of the process—the advertiser, the agency that produced the copy, the media or the direct mail company that posted the leaflet or publication. The ASA can also deal with host advertisements, in the form of leaflets within a mailing or publication. One would be hard put to find an advertisement that could not be the subject of ASA sanctions.

The hon. Gentleman exaggerated the number of cases when an offending advertisement would be outside the ASA's control. I concede that such incidents could arise, but the hon. Gentleman grossly exaggerated the number.

Mr. Michael

I have not exaggerated the number, because I have not given a number. The number does not have to be large. The hon. Gentleman implied that we legislate only for majorities, but we do not—we legislate for minorities. Murderers account for a tiny minority in this country. We legislate against murder because we do not regard it as acceptable. We are doing the equivalent in this case.

Mr. Merchant

As a matter of fact, we do not legislate for the majority or the minority: we legislate for everyone across the board. That was the point that I was trying to make. The hon. Gentleman appeared to think that the law was necessary to deal with a number of cases. He is right to say that he did not specify how many there were, but his argument gave me the impression that he was talking about a large number. All I seek to do is to suggest that the number is extremely small and—this is the crucial point—the number of cases in which the ASA would not be able to solve the problem would be roughly equivalent to the number of cases in which the law could not solve the problem, if the amendment was accepted.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept and understand that the existence of a law does not prevent an offence from being committed. Even if the amendment were successful, people would still break the law, and place advertisements with no telephone number given, but with a discreet way of obtaining the goods concerned.

That happens now in other areas, including pornography, which is why there is a thriving, though illegal, pornography industry. The sole purpose of my remarks is to point out that the amendment would not have any effect and would not improve the situation. The self-regulatory system is extremely effective. For the most part, it achieves the objective, and when it does not, nor would the law.

Lady Olga Maitland

I have great sympathy for the arguments put by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. We have discussed the issue in the Chamber, in Committee and outside. It would be a great pity if we dismissed the hon. Gentleman's concern out of hand, and I wish to demonstrate to him much thought I have given to the subject and how hard I have gone into his arguments. I hope that he will bear with me while I try to give him a real answer. I will not delay the House for too long.

It is appalling to see advertisements that appear to encourage vulnerable young teenagers or their older friends to buy vicious knives that serve no useful purpose, save to harm others. It is equally appalling to read advertisements that appear to incite or condone the possession of those knives for violent purposes. No one could dispute that.

I have read the report by the Advertising Standards Authority on weapons advertising, and I have a copy here. I am sure that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth has studied it; if not, I shall let him have a copy. The report contains some provocative reading. The ASA conducted a survey, and I found its attitude a trifle complacent. The authority said that it had received only four complaints in six years and that, therefore, there were not as many serious grounds for complaint and anxiety as we believe. However, in my view, the authority failed to recognise that the kind of magazines that publish those disturbing advertisements are read largely by people who enjoy or are somewhat excited by such material and they are not likely to complain. The complaints have to be brought in from outside.

Admittedly, the ASA was very concerned about a mail order advertisement for a wide variety of pocket, hunting and fishing knives. Although the advertisement contained no specific claims, its headline "KNIVES, KNIVES, KNIVES" was considered excessive. The report drew my attention to replica knives, which were given some very unhealthy descriptions. For example, a 13 in replica sword based on those used in the Napoleonic wars was described as being carried by riflemen for vicious hand to hand combat. A replica skean-dhu was described as a "wickedly effective fighting knife." The ASA conceded that such advertisements were questionable, but other descriptions are even more vivid. A "Terminator Terror Sword"—the name alone is sufficient cause for concern—was described thus: an explosive power radiates from this monstrous double handed sword … fearsome death's head skull that grins menacingly … absolutely awesome 56" overall. The ASA conceded that the words were sinister, menacing, monstrous, unnecessary and excessive.

It should be said that, usefully, the ASA has paid just as much attention to guns in its research. Guns do not come within the scope of the Bill, but in the light of the terrible Dunblane tragedy there is no doubt that there are lessons to be learnt about the way in which some guns are promoted. Bearing in mind the time element which is pressing on us, I shall not go into that subject.

Suffice it to say that we are all suitably horrified. We feel that much more could and should be done. But what is the right approach? It is necessary to explore a number of difficulties.

12 noon

In clause 6, the proposal is to make it an offence to sell certain articles, including knives and razor blades, to those under 16. The offence would be one of selling rather than buying. The onus would be on the seller rather than the buyer. I think that that is right, given that there is already an offence of carrying a knife in public. The additional offence of buying would create too great a concentration of offences. The problem is adequately catered for by having selling and carrying offences.

The proposal behind the amendment is to create an offence of encouraging and inciting the purchase of a knife or other banned article by someone under 16 years of age. We cannot have an offence of inciting someone to commit another offence that does not exist. Someone could be held to be inciting another to carry a knife or other offensive weapon in public without good reason, but that would not require legislative change. We must reject—

Mr. Michael

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lady Olga Maitland

I shall continue. It may be helpful if I complete what I am saying.

We must reject the proposal that is set out in the first part of the amendment on the basis that it is flawed. It would create an offence of incitement to do something that is not of itself an offence.

It is proposed also to create a different offence, which would be to advertise one of the articles whose sale to people under 16 we proposed to ban in a way that appears to incite or condone the possession of that article for violent purposes. It is already a common law offence for a person to incite or encourage another to commit a crime. To advertise an article for sale, representing its virtue to be that it may be used to undertake an act that is an offence, is an incitement to commit that very offence. That is true even when the advertisement is accompanied by a warning that the act is an offence.

I am trying to say that we are already covered by existing legislation. We do not need to go that bit further, as is proposed by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. It is clear that the amendment would add nothing to existing law. Although incitement can arise in relation to any offence, it is not general practice to include specific provisions for incitement for each offence. The result would be cumbersome and unnecessary.

Despite the findings set out in the ASA's report, I am concerned that it appears to be lacklustre when it comes to what it would like to do next. Surely the onus is on the ASA. It should monitor the media annually. Having said that it will take its responsibility on board, the ASA cannot duck it and say that the job is too large. It seems that there are many people who would help the ASA to undertake its task. There is plenty of evidence that the relevant material can be brought to light.

The ASA should not wait for a complaint to be brought before it before taking action. It should move rapidly as soon as it sees an advertisement that is downright dangerous and inflammatory. It must put much more direct pressure on advertisers, publicising what has been done and forcing them to withdraw such advertisements.

We should also encourage the police to take action when material that clearly incites others to commit crimes is brought to their attention. The police, after all, have the powers, and they should feel free to use them.

In view of those matters, I feel that it is not realistic to support the amendment—much as I sympathise with its spirit. Because of the ASA report, I believe that we should be keeping an eye on the situation and pressing that agency to be vigilant in exercising its responsibilities. At a later stage, if the system is not working, we will have to think again.

Mr. Kirkhope

I cannot say that I am without sympathy for the views that have been expressed. We had a very interesting debate on this matter in Committee, when I expressed some sympathy for the concerns expressed not only by my hon. Friends but by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam that the amendment—although it is well meaning—is flawed in one part, and I believe that the other part is unnecessary. I hope that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth will in due course withdraw it.

I believe that the amendment is aimed at, among other things, dealing with the serious issue of how such articles are advertised and how that advertising is controlled. I should like to comment on the advertising of weapons in the context of the Advertising Standards Authority's recent report, to which hon. Members have referred.

The ASA has just reported on its survey of weapons advertising in the non-broadcast media. I understand that the report, which some us have already received, will be made more widely available in due course. The report is of very great interest, although the Bill, as we know, does not contain proposals directly affecting advertising.

The survey's aim was to ascertain the prevalence and presentation of weapons advertisements in the United Kingdom. Those conducting it monitored a range of newspapers, magazines and mail order catalogues during the first two weeks of February this year, and they made the following findings. They found a total of 259 advertisements, which included duplicates. The advertisements were for guns, knives, sports goods—ranging from martial arts weapons to archery equipment—replicas and catalogues. Of the total, 226—or 87 per cent.—of the advertisements were for guns, including air rifles, pistols and so-called "soft firers", which are guns that fire balls at very low velocity. The great majority of advertisements came from titles dedicated to such subjects as martial arts, fishing and field sports. About half were classified as advertisements for guns.

The ASA reports its views on the acceptability of advertisements under the British codes of advertising and sales promotion. I shall deal in a moment with what the ASA can and cannot do in situations in which it considers that advertisements are in breach of the codes.

The codes lay down the criteria for advertising standards and state that advertisements should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society, and that they should not contain anything that might condone or encourage violent or anti-social behaviour. Advertisements that were presented in a manner that might appeal to the immature or unstable mind, for example, would be unacceptable. Similarly, if a weapons advertisement were emotive or aggressive, it would come into conflict with the codes.

I turned with interest to the section of the ASA report that considered whether the advertisements picked up by the survey were considered to be acceptable or unacceptable. That is of interest for two reasons. The first reason is that we all, I think, want to know whether advertisers are behaving themselves. Secondly, however, I believe that it is helpful for us to have some insight into the way in which the ASA judges whether an advertisement is acceptable.

Of the 259 advertisements picked up by the survey, the great majority—94 per cent.—were considered to be acceptable under the codes. The remaining 6 per cent. were considered to be questionable. I should say that the low level of questionable advertisements should not lead us into complacency. As I mentioned earlier, 97 per cent. of the advertisements came from titles dedicated to subjects as diverse as martial arts, fishing and field sports. I believe that most advertisers will be responsible about the manner in which their advertisements are presented.

Although the ASA's report does not make it explicit, I believe that the majority of advertisements that were found to be offensive were at what one might call the "seedy end" of the range. Much of this relates to guns and knives rather than other offensive weapons—it is the latter with which we are mainly concerned now—but it would be helpful if I referred to the report as a whole because of the light that it sheds on the ASA's general approach.

In my opinion, certain mail order publications pander to the immature with advertisements of the type that I mentioned in Committee and that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned again a few moments ago. The ASA stated: Advertisements should not glorify violence nor should they suggest that psychological excitement is to be gained from owning and handling weapons. Claims which refer to power and strength (even by using exaggerated exclamation marks) could appeal to the immature or unstable mind. That certainly seems to be a promising starting point.

The report went on to say that six advertisements caused concern by referring to The lightweight rifle packing the heavy punch!! and Pistol power! shooting fun starts with", and that phrase is followed by the brand name. The ASA states that, although these expressions could be relatively harmless if used purely in the context of the Olympic sport of shooting, in other contexts the descriptions could be inappropriately emotive.

Five of the advertisements picked up in the survey were considered questionable by the ASA because they seemed unnecessarily provocative. A mail order advertisement placed by a retailer of air guns, swords, knives and replicas was considered irresponsible because of the use of the following language: How cash crunching prices leave competitors heads rolling like lemons on lino. Battle burgers, had enough of pledgee wedges and stench warfare? … Sadistic ballistics". I do not pretend to understand all that, but I understand enough to find it highly offensive. The ASA viewed that advertisement as aggressive and likely to appeal to the immature. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam cited similar examples which I do not need to repeat.

I take some heart from the ASA's criticism of advertisements that appear to take a frivolous approach to the advertising of potentially dangerous weapons. I know that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth is especially concerned about that. The ASA's report mentions a mail order advertisement for rifles. It is in the style of a comic strip in which the characters use expressions such as "Brill!", which we all know is an abbreviation of "brilliant", and "Get this!" The ASA considers that an immature way to promote guns.

Three of the mail order catalogues were considered to contain questionable advertising material. One advertisement for a gun referred to a "fistful of fun" along with the statement: it's the kind of gun you just can't put down". The ASA considered that a frivolous and irresponsible way to promote an air gun. As has been said, many immature people, or those with psychological difficulties, do not look at advertisements in the way that people with a more mature mind might. That certainly causes me great concern.

I shall deal now with the ASA's follow-up action to the survey. The purpose of the survey was, given current concerns about the sale of weapons, to ascertain the prevalence and presentation of weapons advertising in the United Kingdom. The ASA will distribute the report widely, which is good because it needs careful scrutiny. It will ask all the companies whose advertisements it considers unacceptable or questionable to amend them in future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) referred to the nature of the ASA's approach when it feels that sanctions might be necessary. Judging from its past performance, I believe that the ASA will be successful, but I remind the House that the ASA has no statutory powers. It was established in 1962 as an independent body to administer the British codes of advertising and sales promotion. The codes regulate the content of all non-broadcast media in the United Kingdom. The authority seeks to ensure that everyone who commissions, prepares, places and publishes advertisements observes the codes.

In this context, it is important to realise that many sanctions are available and that they are widely spread throughout the non-broadcast media. They include adverse publicity, the refusal of further advertising space when codes are broken, the removal of trade incentives, which is often very important, and legal proceedings if advertisements are in any way misleading.

The question that still arises is whether the arrangements are adequate. It is helpful in that context to distinguish between the article being advertised and the terms in which it is advertised. As we know, guns and knives can be bought and sold perfectly legally. As for knives—it is knives in which we are mainly interested—I believe that we have gone as far as we can in banning weapons that have a legitimate use, and that can be defined in law in a way that distinguishes them from knives that have other uses. Under the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959, for instance, flick knives and gravity knives are prohibited. Anyone who sells any of those articles, be it over the counter or through mail order, is committing an offence that carries a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment, a £5,000 fine or both.

12.15 pm

The ASA is not in the business of banning advertisements for articles that may be sold legally; that would be a matter for Parliament. I know that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth feels that we should take matters further. Let me make a few comments about whether it is desirable or possible for Parliament to ban advertisements for knives.

It might well be desirable to ban advertisements for certain knives. I have in mind the so-called Rambo survival knives, and articles of that sort. Regrettably, the practical difficulties that arise when we consider banning the sale of those items also arise when we consider advertising. We cannot define the items in law in a way that distinguishes them from knives that have legitimate uses. A manufacturer may give a knife a fancy or even an offensive name, but the fact remains that, unless the article in question has a mechanism or feature that enables it to be distinguished in law from knives that are used legitimately, it is not possible to ban one without banning the other. Even if it were possible to tease out advertising from simple sale, it could be strongly argued that, if it is legal to sell something, it should also be legal to advertise it. As I said earlier, I believe that we have gone as far as we can in banning the sale of undesirable articles.

It is one thing for an advertisement to describe, say, an angling knife in a straightforward and unemotive way; it is quite another for the advertiser to say or imply that it can be used to inflict injury. In reaching a decision about whether an advertisement is unacceptable, some pretty fine judgments may have to be made in a number of different contexts. It is not easy to legislate for that.

The ASA regards the use of the title "KNIVES, KNIVES, KNIVES"—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam—as excessive, and is confident that it will get it modified in future advertisements. I doubt whether we could achieve that through statutory control. As I have said, there are problems. Some of us may feel that censorship might not be such a bad thing, but if we censor so-called Rambo survival knives, should we not also censor Rambo-style films? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), I believe that there could be a slippery slope. I also feel that we would have great difficulty in dealing with much of the advertising that we would want withdrawn or changed—some of which, as my hon. Friend pointed out, emanates from shady operations with limited circulation, and which is very difficult to control, particularly if the distributors do not care for the law.

I am concerned, however, that the ASA normally only responds to complaints, rather than looking for objectionable material. Much of that material will appear in magazines and catalogues whose readers may actually enjoy it rather than wishing to complain. In the context of the debate, those people worry me.

I have taken careful note of the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby), who represented the views and concerns of many people. I make it clear that, as a result of the ASA report and our debate, I intend to approach the ASA to have further discussions about its approach, its sanctions and the discipline that it brings to the advertising industry. I hope, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam has said, that it will continue its regular surveys to keep an eye on what it going on. In the meantime, more may have to be done and, as I say, I intend to approach the ASA for further discussions.

Mr. John Greenway

In those discussions will my hon. Friend seek to address the potentially growing problem of the advertising of such material through the Internet?

Mr. Kirkhope

That is an important point. Within the Home Office I am involved with a team that is looking at the effect of the Internet, particularly some of the unpleasant material that is passing through it. I shall do my best to include that in my discussions with the ASA. I apologise to the House for having spoken for so long. I ask the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Michael

The Under-Secretary quoted example after example of advertisements that make my case absolutely and unquestionably. The hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam and for Uxbridge also gave examples which show why the amendment should be accepted. The Under-Secretary and the Advertising Standards Authority agree that these advertisements are intended to appeal to immature people, especially to young people, and that has been accepted.

The Under-Secretary agrees that the ASA does not do enough. He was right to suggest that it is too much of a limitation that it considers a case only when it receives a complaint. I hope that he is successful in his discussions with the ASA on that. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) shakes his head with a violence that seems likely to do him some damage. However, his enthusiastic support for the Advertising Standards Authority is misplaced on the basis of what it has said to me and to others on precisely this point.

Mr. Kirkhope

Perhaps I could set the record straight. I used the word "normally" and I did not say that it was exclusively the case. In my discussions with the ASA, I shall speak about the emphasis on proactive or reactive attitudes.

Mr. Michael

I welcome the fact that the Minister intends to do that. It will be interesting to discover the outcome of that discussion, but having it does not abrogate the Minister's responsibility. The Minister has expressed concern, but what do the Government intend to do? Nothing! He has acknowledged that the ASA has no statutory powers and cannot do anything about those who ignore its rules, its codes and its advice. Is there some sort of ban on Ministers agreeing to regulate anything, even matters that are universally accepted as being in the public interest? Only yesterday, the private security industry was raised. Regulation is wanted by the police, by the industry itself and by the public, but Home Office Ministers appear to be stymied by the Department of Trade and Industry from agreeing to regulate even in the public interest.

I would not have moved the amendment if the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam or the Government had drafted amendments to try to tackle the problem. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam has acknowledged that there is a need to take some action and has attempted to deal seriously with the issues that I have raised, although I think that she has been led astray by the Home Office from her virtuous efforts to tackle the knife culture. She suggested that everything is covered by existing legislation. She is wrong. If we want the police to act on such weapons, we need to give them the tools that they need to do the job, and the amendment would help in that regard.

The hon. Lady said that the onus is on the Advertising Standards Authority. No, it is not. I agree with her criticisms and also hope that it will take the matter more seriously, but it is the responsibility of Government and of Parliament to take the necessary steps to ensure that legislation is in place for people who do not observe the ASA's voluntary requirements.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the ASA has already responded to our concerns and that, as a result of our earlier debates, it has published this report?

Mr. Michael

Yes. It has been a bit slow to do so, but the ASA has, I acknowledge, responded to some extent. I am not, however, trying to place the onus on the ASA. My basic point is that responsible advertisers seeking to sell articles to people involved in fishing or other sports will observe the ASA's rules, but people who seek to sell weapons that are intended for violent purposes to impressionable people, including impressionable young people—who can then become a danger to society—will not take a blind bit of notice of what the ASA says.

I was taken aback by the speech of the hon. Member for Beckenham. I am not sure whether he has retained an interest in the advertising industry, but I believe that he was speaking against the interests of that industry and of the ASA.

Mr. Merchant

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Michael

Wait one moment. The vast majority of people who publish and who advertise have no interest in promoting such weapons in the sort of advertisements that have been quoted by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. The amendment aims at a specific target. It is in the best interests of the advertising industry as a whole that this disreputable bit of the market should be hit by my amendment.

Mr. Merchant

I will not be drawn back into the debate, because I have made my position clear; but, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned it, I want to make it clear to him that I have no interest in the advertising industry or in any other industry. I have no such connections and never have done during my period in the House.

Mr. Michael

If there is any doubt, I was referring to interest in the sense of keeping up to date and of being aware of issues that affect the industry. My point is that the line that the hon. Gentleman was taking is not in that industry's interests.

The hon. Member for Beckenham made the point, as I have done, that the vast majority of the industry observes voluntary regulation, but we often legislate in the House for a small number of people who go against the interests of the community at large. I gave the example of murderers. There are not very many murders, but it is such a horrendous offence that we legislate specifically to try to prevent the actions of that minority and to punish them if they offend. That is what laws are for.

Similarly, I know that we are trying to regulate for a small minority of advertisers and a small proportion of the advertising market, but it is a proportion. It continues to have these advertisements, which succeed in reaching some people. If advertisers were not selling any of these things, they would not continue to advertise. Responsible organisations do not need the advice of the Advertising Standards Authority on this matter. If they are slipping, they will listen to the advice in the report, which has been referred to by several hon. Members. The amendment is about advertising by organisations and individuals who do not give a toss about the views of the ASA or of hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made an extraordinary speech. He appears to be so obsessed with freedom of expression that he does not care whether that advertising results in violence or even death. I have to put it that strongly to him because such things are encouraged by the advertisements that have been quoted, among others, by the Minister and myself. I expect people involved in country sports generally to support my amendment when they consider its specific wording and the type of advertisements to which we have referred. The amendment would catch those who advertise such an article for sale in a way which appears to incite or condone the possession of such an article for violent purposes. The amendment is very specific and it is narrowly drawn.

It is difficult to believe that the hon. Member for Hexham is so naive as to think, first, that those advertisements get into the hands only of those who are not impressionable in any way and do not get into the hands of young people and, secondly, that it is all right for people to advertise in that way.

12.30 pm
Mr. Peter Atkinson

I may be naive, and perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I believe in defending the right of an individual to self-expression. It is something that we should restrict only with very great reluctance. It should be restricted only if the hon. Gentleman could show, through his arguments during this debate, that some positive benefit to the public would result from passing his amendment. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has shown without doubt that the amendment would not achieve that. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman should not try to restrict the rights of people to self-expression. I agree that they are unpleasant people, but simply because someone is unpleasant does not mean that he should not be able to express his views.

Mr. Michael

I do not regard the hon. Gentleman as old-fashioned, although I certainly regard him as naive and his views as dangerous. The expression of views can cause enormous problems in society and the House has legislated against that in certain cases. On a number of occasions we have expressed concern about the freedom to incite violence, including racial violence. Are those freedoms that the hon. Gentleman would wish to defend? I rather think not. If he reads his words in Hansard and considers their implications, he may come to regret deeply what he has said today.

Fringe periodicals of the sort that the amendment would target reach impressionable young people, as do flyers in local newspapers. The freedom to incite violence is a freedom we can do without. The self-regulatory system is not sufficient. We need to control the advertising of offensive weapons to ensure that neither guns nor knives get into the wrong hands, thereby putting the public in danger. It is in the interests of the advertising industry—even of the ASA—that we should legislate in the way suggested in my amendment. It is certainly in the interests of the public and also of the police, who have to deal with violence on our streets.

There has been a series of cross-party debates on the Bill. I acknowledge the fact that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam has tried to deal with the issues that I have raised. We are agreed on the need to do something about advertising. Unfortunately, the Minister has not yet accepted that. I hope that, in the atmosphere of a cross-party approach to the horrific events at Dunblane and cross-party agreement on necessary legislation, we will continue to debate the whole issue of mail order of weapons—including guns and knives and the way in which they can be advertised through channels that will encourage the interest of impressionable young people. I hope that, this year, legislation will be introduced to tackle a problem that I have been glad to be able to air during this short debate.

It is not my purpose to delay the Bill. As I said earlier, we give two cheers for it; I would have liked to be able to give a third cheer for having my amendment accepted. However, two cheers are better than none. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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