HC Deb 05 January 2004 vol 416 cc1-3
1. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)(Con)

What her policy is on preventing pornographic publications from being sold to children. [145827]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell)

In answering, I welcome my hon. Friend—I mean the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), but she may, one never knows, become an hon. Friend—to her new duties on the Opposition Front Bench.

Children must, of course, be protected from exposure to pornography, and I commend Bedfordshire county council and the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for their efforts in that area. The magazine industry has established voluntary top-shelf arrangements covering the display and sale of pornographic publications, and those are welcome. In

practice, however, there may be difficulties in defining closely what is or is not deemed to be pornographic or obscene under the framework of the Obscene Publications Acts.

There is a case for exploring what more might practically be done to safeguard children in the light of Bedfordshire county council's experience. I therefore intend to convene a meeting with the Local Government Association and other interested parties, including relevant Departments, to discuss the issue.

Andrew Selous

I am heartened by the Secretary of State's reply. Bedfordshire's trading standards authority has clearly shown from its under-age surveillance work that children are being sold sexually explicit material, as is no doubt the case elsewhere. Will the Government make a commitment to pursue Bedfordshire's proposal that trading standards authorities be empowered to prosecute traders for selling sexually explicit material to children, just as they prosecute traders who sell them alcohol or cigarettes?

Tessa Jowell

Having set out the position in my opening answer, I do not want at this stage to commit myself to the outcome of the discussions that we intend to hold. On the basis that we will examine whether the experience in Bedfordshire is a problem that faces local authorities more widely, we will engage in those discussions and produce proposals that are proportionate and practical, and we will, wherever possible, work with the industry.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)(Lab/Co-op)

Happy new year, Mr. Speaker.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the problem is no longer a question only of the sale of these materials to young people; they are freely available on the internet. All right hon. and hon. Members seem to be particularly plagued by them. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that we are looking at how to shut down all manner of spam involving pornographic material on the basis that we should be prosecuting? I look forward to hearing how she intends to take that forward.

Tessa Jowell

My hon. Friend has a long-standing concern about and interest in this area. He will be aware of the Government's position, which was clearly set out during debates in both Houses on the Communications Act 2003. There are undoubtedly inconsistencies as regards the licensing of videos, the non-licensing of magazines and the unregulated status of the internet. I am committed to achieving the maximum protection for children while taking account of those inconsistencies and the increasing ease with which children are able to secure pornographic material.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)(Con)

Does the Minister recognise that one of the most serious problems is not the top shelf but the bottom shelves on which magazines such as More!, published by Emap, are readily on display and on sale to young children? If the Minister would take the trouble to read such magazines, she would find that they concentrate on the mechanics of sex and that they contain little moral content. It is little wonder that our children have no moral leadership in this country when that sort of material is freely available.

Tessa Jowell

There is an important distinction to be drawn as regards the market for teenage magazines, which I believe provide a very important service, by and large, for many young people. Yes, those magazines provide entertainment, gossip and tittle-tattle, but for many young people—this is to be regretted—they are the principal source of information about sex, development and relationships. By and large, that is a responsibility that the magazines discharge responsibly, through the Periodical Publishers Association and other industry associations. There is all the difference in the world between those magazines and the kind of magazines to which the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire referred, which are pornographic and, in some cases, questionably obscene.