HL Deb 11 May 1970 vol 310 cc469-84

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In rising to move the Second Reading of this Bill to amend the Indecent Advertisements Act 1889 I think perhaps I should start by explaining the Act itself, although no doubt many of your Lordships are cognisant of it. This Act makes it a crime for anybody to display matter of an indecent or obscene nature so as to be visible to people passing along the street, or to hand it to passers-by, or to throw it down the area of a house or affix or inscribe it on any public urinal. Section 5 of the Act states: Any advertisement relating to any venereal disease shall be deemed to be printed or written matter of an indecent nature … if such advertisement is affixed to or inscribed on any house, building, wall, hoarding, gate, fence, pillar, post, board, tree, or other thing whatsoever, so as to be visible to a person being in or passing along any street, public highway, or footpath, or is affixed to or inscribed on any public urinal, or is delivered or attempted to be delivered to any person being in or passing along any street, public highway or footpath. The purpose of this Bill is not to challenge the need to protect the public from exposure to indecent advertisement as such. But as things stand at present, however sober the terms in which an advertisement or notice may be drafted; however sensible the information or advice contained in it may be, or however sparse and inadequate the information may be, if it relates to verereal disease it is deemed to be indecent if publicly displayed.

Veneral disease to-day is a matter of grave concern, and the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health, in his last Annual Report, expressed anxiety at the rising figures. Since then, unfortunately, there has been a further rise. Gonorrhœa is the great problem. Over the last fifteen years the number of cases of gonorrhœa in men has trebled, and in women it has quadrupled. In the last five years there has been a further increase of one-third for men and women, but twice this rate of increase for women alone. Obviously, something badly needs to be done.

The Health Education Council was set up by the Government two years ago as the authoritative health education body for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As your Lordships will doubtless remember, a debate on health education, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Cohen of Birkenhead, took place in this House on December 20, 1967. The Council clearly has a duty to perform in this area—and here I must declare an interest, as I am the Chairman of the Health Education Council. Although the decision to attempt to amend this Bill is my own, and I am of course presenting it in my capacity as a Member of your Lordships' House, it does, I may say, reflect generally the views of the Council.

For the Council to carry out its duty effectively it must draw attention to the dangers of venereal disease, to the health hazards of promiscuity and the need to obtain medical attention immediately. But under the 1889 Act the display of any poster on these lines, if visible to the public in any street or footpath—or, probably, in any public urinal—makes the person displaying it liable to a penalty of £20, or one month in prison; and those who produce the poster for others to display are liable to a penalty of £50, or three months in prison. Indeed, it is highly likely that many local authorities have been unwittingly breaking the law, so far as public urinals are concerned—although, frankly, those are the last places in which I should like to see the Health Education Council's posters displayed.

The Council has embarked on an anti-V.D. campaign, directed mainly at the 16 to 30 year olds, where the biggest increase is taking place. It consists of posters and leaflets explaining, in frank, simple terms, the facts about V.D. Incidentally, these were evaluated and researched, and it was found that it was this frank, simple explanation that young people wanted. The leaflets and posters also ask people to consult their doctor or local hospital if they feel that there is a chance that they might be infected, or otherwise contact the Health Education Council for information, and they will then be given addresses of their local clinics.

But, my Lords, every poster and leaflet carries the following warning: If this is displayed where it would be visible to some-one passing along a street, public highway or footpath, or if it is handed to anyone in those places, there is a risk of prosecution under Section 5 of the Indecent Advertisements Act 1889. This, without any doubt, is a hampering factor in the fight against venereal disease. First of all, even with the warning, some of the cautious will not want to take the risk. The rather more indolent, who do not feel the necessity or urgency that many of us feel is needed to combat this rising incidence, will feel free not to take the trouble. Individuals may be prosecuted because they have inadvertently broken the law. The posters might be put up inside a building—for instance, a public library; the door could be opened, and somebody might see the poster from the street and lodge a complaint.

Thirdly (perhaps this is the most important reason of all) in this campaign the Council is trying to break through the ignorance that still exists on such a vast scale in this country. It has established by research that well over 50 per cent. of young people show a complete misunderstanding about V.D. The fear which many people feel in even coming forward if they suspect that they may be suffering from one of these sexually transmitted infectious diseases is not going to be helped when they see this rather dramatic warning at the bottom of the leaflet or poster. What is also needed is to reduce the sense of shame that many people have if they suspect that they may be suffering, or that their partner is suffering, from one of these diseases. All this is endangered when one has to stipulate by law a spurious connection between these highly infectious venereal diseases and the Indecent Advertisements Act. I am sure your Lordships will agree that a change is required, and this is the reason for my Bill.

The only objective of this Bill is to add a proviso to Section 5 of the 1889 Act, stating that advertisements related to venereal disease are not to be deemed indecent if they are published for a local or public authority, or otherwise with the approval of the Secretary of State. The safeguards against giving out irresponsible information are secure. Your Lordships may be interested to know that during the passage of the 1889 Act (which was itself also a Private Member's Bill introduced into this House) the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Halsbury, expressed doubts as to the comprehensive nature of the proposed legislation. Further, when the Bill was presented on Second Reading the words, "venereal disease", "syphilis" or "gonorrhœa" were not spelt out, but were referred to as "any disease of a loathsome or secret kind".

My Lords, in 1889 there was no cure for V.D. It was included in this section to protect people from quackery. But this is 1970 not 1889. These diseases are no longer secret, and the more they remain secret the more dangerous and widespread they become. Nor should they be swept under our social carpet any longer. To-day they are readily curable if steps are taken in time. It is a great pity that something which is a medical and social matter should be included in an Act with the rather diverting title of "Indecent Advertisements". This may cause a great deal of confusion, which I hope I have been able to clear up. What is even more absurd than the title is that this antique anomaly should seriously hamper, as it does, responsible efforts to deal with this growing problem.

I am sure your Lordships will agree that any legislation that helps in any way to deal with this should be passed as quickly as possible, since the benefits to be obtained from even this limited Bill are potentially very great. This is not only my opinion, and the opinion of the Council, but is the opinion of many leading venereologists and other doctors, and social workers who are concerned with this problem. Therefore I hope you will give this Bill a Second Reading this afternoon. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Birk.)

5.47 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships wish me to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, on having so clearly and courageously introduced this Bill to your Lordships' House. Nobody would wish to put any impediment in the way of this Bill going through, but there are one or two points that I should like the Minister to explain to us. Your Lordships will be aware that I have something to do with advertisements as Chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority. Not very long ago it came to our attention that a students' magazine was giving advice on where to go for treatment for venereal diseases. The magazine was taken to task on this matter and I therefore had occasion to look up the law on the point. In that case the subject seems to have been covered by another Act, the Venereal Disease Act 1917. It seems desirable that the two Acts should be harmonised. I am not quite certain that the noble Baroness's Bill goes far enough; it will probably achieve the purpose she had immediately in mind, but it might be desirable to amend the Bill at a later stage to make it a little more comprehensive.

The Venereal Disease Act of 1917 was prefaced as: An Act to prevent the treatment of venereal disease otherwise than by duly qualified medical practitioners, and to control the supply of remedies therefor; and for other matters connected therewith. It says in Section 2 that: A person shall not by any advertisement or any public notice or announcement treat or offer to treat any person for venereal disease, or prescribe or offer to prescribe any remedy therefore, or offer to give or give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof". That is pretty wide.

Then it says: Provided that nothing in this section shall apply to any advertisement, notification, announcement, recommendation, or holding out made or published by any local or public authority or made or published with the sanction of"— and, I suppose, the authority is now the Secretary of State— or to any publication sent only to duly qualified medical practitioners or to wholesale or retail chemists for the purposes of their business. That Act plainly did not exonerate the students' magazine and in those circumstances I do not suppose it would exonerate either the Health Education Council—I am not sure, but I should think not.

Where the Venereal Disease Act does not fit in very well with previous legislation is that it seems all right for a local authority to publish an advertisement provided that it does not pin it up somewhere, affix it or, let us say, throw it down the well of a house. There seems to be some need for harmonising these two measures, and to make sure that what the local authorities have been doing for so long, and have presumably thought they had power to do, is something they really are entitled to do, and to ensure that other people also are entitled to do it with the consent or approval of the appropriate authority. It is for consideration whether that authority should be the Secretary of State or possibly the local authorities themselves. My Lords, with those few remarks I wish to give the purpose behind the noble Baroness's Bill warm support, and I wish the Bill well on its way.

5.52 p.m.


My Lords, I also should like to congratulate the noble Baroness on the initiative she has shown in bringing this little Bill before Parliament. It was high time that somebody made a move about this matter. I myself have noticed, and I am sure that others of your Lordships had noticed, in recent weeks and months in the newspapers notices of prosecutions either under the 1889 Act or under the 1917 Act, prosecutions on the part of the police the wisdom of which one was forced to doubt. But of course the full circumstances are never known. It is very necessary that the position should be cleared up.

My noble friend has drawn attention to the really alarming increase in venereal disease of both types over these last years. The measure which was introduced in 1889, at a time when there was no cure at all and advertisements of this kind were obviously fraudulent, was no doubt very sensible—to try to stop people from being cheated out of their money by all sorts of fraudulent pretences. But that situation, as the noble Baroness has pointed out, has completely changed very nearly a hundred years later; and now it is not only possible but probable that these diseases will in fact be perfectly well cured if they are only tackled sufficiently early. Therefore we should have no hesitation in passing this Bill into law.

The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, has drawn attention to a quite important point. The relationship between the two Acts is not as clear as it might be. The 1917 Act, as he has pointed out, contains safeguards. The noble Baroness has introduced rather similar safeguards into the Bill now before your Lordships. The relationship between the two existing measures is not very clear, and I think it would be rather a pity to leave the matter open to the police, who are not always too well equipped for handling a situation of this kind, when the two Statutes are in rather differing terms, of rather differing widths, and raise rather different problems of construction. The noble Lord is quite right in drawing attention to this matter and asking that the situation should be remedied. There will be time to do this, and I hope that the noble Baroness who is to reply for the Government will make the position perfectly clear, so that we may know where we are, and so that if Amendments need to be introduced they may be introduced at the proper stage. My Lords, with those words of welcome I add my own support to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and hope that your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading.

5.56 p.m.


My Lords, as there does not seem to be a medical speaker on the list of speakers, I thought I ought to add a word to say how much I appreciate the fact that the noble Baroness has brought this Bill before us and emphasised the obvious need to get rid of any old-fashioned Act which is hampering the work of the Health Education Council in this extraordinarily important field, when there has been so much increase in venereal disease in recent times. I am not at all qualified to speak on whether the 1917 Act and the 1889 Act ought in some way to be brought together in the final form in which our Bill goes to the other place and, we hope, obtains Royal Assent in due course. But I hope that nothing will interfere with the urgency of this Bill, which I think is extremely important. We are already in the middle of May and a small Bill like this could easily be put on one side. I hope it will not be, and that it will not be delayed for want of some rather academic Amendment.

5.57 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend Lady Birk in what I believe is her first attempt to introduce a Private Member's Bill. I am sure she will be successful. After all, all she is trying to do is to remove an anachronism. The Bill of 1889 was passed at a time of great hypocrisy. In fact, the whole question of venereal disease was regarded with loathing, it seemed, by those people who were not prepared to recognise that the sick are to be pitied, however they might have become sick in the first place. Later on, when clinics were established, I notice that a venereologist put it this way: The buildings were provided for the cloak-and-dagger days of V.D., when people slunk in basement bolt-holes to get the unspeakable disease dealt with. That is the whole point. It was unspeakable in those days, and certainly disgraceful to write about it or to mention it. Venereal disease was rife and the doctors were baffled because they knew so little about it.

Now times have changed and we are living in what is known as "the permissive society". I find it difficult to believe that anybody will be shocked today by what they see written on a poster which is designed to direct to the nearest clinic people suffering from the disease. It has been murmured in my ear—and I did not think of this for one moment and I am sure that my noble friend will say it is quite out of the question—that these notices might be used to advertise proprietary drugs of some kind, but I am sure my noble friend's organisation will see to it that there is no abuse of this kind.

The figures are absolutely deplorable. Gonorrhœa in men has risen by 12½ per cent. since 1968, and among women by 20 per cent. The Department of Health and Social Security is very concerned at what is happening. I am sorry to say that the venereologists are rather pessimistic about the future. I hardly dare say this because the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, is present, and it is sheer coincidence that I have mentioned the contraceptive pill twice to-day, but the venereologists blame the permissive society and the pill.

We rarely have an opportunity to discuss this matter, which is of great concern to young people because the ages between 15 and 30 are the ages at which the incidence is highest. It is the young people between 15 and 30 who are suffering. One often thought of it as a disease of the middle-aged and of the elderly, because it was quite common for doctors to see the final symptoms manifest themselves later on in life. But this is a disease of young people who should be enjoying life and should be absolutely free from disease, and therefore we must make an effort to deal with it. I mention the permissive society and the pill simply because when the venereologists say that they are pessimistic it does not mean that the pill is a symptom of the permissive society. It means that the pill is not such an effective contraceptive as were the old-fashioned contraceptives, the condom and the pessary. It is a fact that the pill exposes people to this disease, and I hope that my noble friend, when she has reached the stage of deciding what should be put on these posters, will take the whole picture into account.

I did not quite understand my noble friend's meaning when she said that she did not like the places where it is proposed to exhibit these posters, that is to say, in the lavatories. I should have thought the lavatories at railway stations, where young girls come, where boys come when they see the big town, so to speak, almost for the first time, are ideal places to reach these young people. Perhaps I should have said it was the first thing they see in a big town. The whole problem is how to reach young people and to tell and explain the details of these diseases and how they can be prevented.

There is a grave shortage of clinics, and we must tackle that situation. I am told that the clinics are absolutely overcrowded and, even more important, that there is a grave shortage of staff. One can understand that doctors are not always attracted to the study and the treatment of venereal diseases. Again, that may be a hangover from the nineteenth century, but undoubtedly in order to make this Bill absolutely effective we must see that there is ample accommodation in our clinics, when of course the available staff will come forward. I wish my noble friend every success.


My Lords, it would be a tragic irony if, in a decade when many legitimate advertisements could be called indecent—I am thinking particularly of the connection between sexual attractiveness and smoking—a sensible and educative gesture should be prosecuted under an archaic Act. In urging your Lordships to support the noble Baroness—and I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn was so enthusiastic—I would suggest that at a later date we should give some time and thought to the quality and rhetoric of ordinary commercial advertisements in public places which have no such healthy educative function as those we are discussing.


My Lords, I rise merely to ask whether the Act of 1889 and the Act of 1917 apply to Scotland.

6.7 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to those of other noble Lords who have supported the Second Reading of this Bill and to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for the clear and succinct way in which she led us through the Bill and the reasons why she has brought it forward to the House.

I thought I would confine myself at this stage to attempting to answer the points relating to the present state of the law that were put in questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, and the noble Lord, Lord Chorley. I have no doubt that when my noble friend Lady Birk replies to this short debate she will explain to the House her reasons for choosing this way of putting her amendment to the 1889 Act forward and the effect she sees it having on the law as it exists at the moment.

The difficulty, as I understand it, is that we have on the Statute Book to-day two pieces of legislation which are in fact irreconcilable. One is Section 5 of the Indecent Advertisements Act 1889 and the other is Section 2 of the Venereal Diseases Act 1917. The latter Act, while preventing any unauthorised advertisement relating to venereal disease, in fact makes specific exemptions in the case of advertisements made or published by any local authority or any public authority, or with the sanction of the Secretary of State for Social Services (and the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, was quite right in that point) in England and Wales, or indeed in Scotland by the Secretary of State for Scotland.

In 1917 when this Act was passed, I think there was clearly no intention of preventing reputable bodies from displaying in public educational posters or advertisements which might help to prevent the spread of what is in fact now one of the most common infectious diseases—and that at a time when in recent years we have almost eradicated a wide range of infectious diseases from our society. But in 1970 clearly there is no reason for so doing. Yet, as the noble Baroness has become aware, this is in effect the result of the 1889 Act, by stating categorically, as it does, that any advertisement relating to syphilis, gonorrhœa, nervous debility or other complaint or infirmity arising or relating to sexual intercourse must be considered indecent under the Act if it is displayed in a public place. The 1889 Act puts highly respectable bodies, such as the Health Education Council, in the invidious position of having either to risk prosecution or to limit their efforts to educate the public. I was glad to hear from those noble Lords who have spoken in this debate that there is general support for legislation which attempts to rectify this rather absurd situation.

My Lords, as I understand it, this Bill makes this attempt in such a way that the existing law is unchanged except where those bodies are concerned who are already afforded special exemption by the 1917 Act. In fact—and I think the noble Baroness will confirm this—the Bill makes a very limited amendment which resolves the basic contradiction between the two Acts without in any way endangering the current safeguards against irresponsible advertisements and matters relating to sexual intercourse.

As the noble Baroness assured the House—and I absolutely agree with her—none of us has any reason to believe that the result of this Bill will be a flood of material about sexual matters which certain people might find offensive. Nor, in my view, is there any danger of an outbreak of wildly offensive posters. In fact the Bill is a very mild and moderate measure which, by the minimal possible interference with the existing law, achieves its object of removing the threat of prosecution from organisations and also the purpose we all seek to achieve, namely, to assist the Health Education Council in promoting its very necessary campaign to make young people aware of the dangers and the effects of venereal disease. I have no hesitation whatsoever, on behalf of the Government, in recommending the Bill to the House, and, with the noble Lord, Lord Platt, I hope, too, that it will be passed through all its stages as quickly as possible.

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, may I first thank noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate for their very kind words and for their support for my Bill. I think my noble friend, Lady Serota, put very clearly the contradictions between the two Acts, the 1889 Act and the Venereal Diseases Act 1917, and showed how this particular amendment will help to resolve the contradiction. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, may I say that I considered very carefully whether to put forward an amendment to the Venereal Diseases Act 1917, but, as I think he now accepts, it would not help in regard to this particular point in the 1889 Act.

The noble Lord raised a further point on the question of advice, and the section under which the student was prosecuted. The student was found not guilty on that count, so I hope that that will act as a precedent in future. I imagine that the reason was that the magistrate found that it was not advice as to treatment, but just advice. The Health Education Council in fact get round this particular point by printing on their posters and leaflets that they will give information. Frankly, in view of the lateness in the Session and the question of Parliamentary time, I felt that this matter could be accomplished without hampering the campaign, whereas the other point, about having to put out a warning, was a very hampering factor.

It is clear, if one takes a wider view, that eventually all these Acts will need a great deal of rationalisation and clearing up, and probably a certain amount of repeal and deletion. It was my first intention to try to amend the 1889 Act by repealing Section 5 altogether, but again it seemed to me that I had to take the practical view. The situation was urgent. A campaign is in progress at the moment. I felt that there would not be much chance of getting that repeal through in the present Session, because the matter needed a great deal more discussion. I think the noble Lord, Lord Platt, put his finger on the point when he said that we are already in the middle of May. This amending Bill will make matters much easier and will give a great deal more freedom and elbow room in the running of the campaign.

In addition to local and public authorities, which include the Health Education Council, the Bill means that any other person who wants to put forward posters or advertisements regarding venereal disease will be able to do so if he obtains the sanction of the Secretary of State. Some noble Lords may feel that one should go further; but at the present stage in the Session I think it is much more realistic to try to clear up one matter rather than to wait, perhaps for a very long time, to deal with things in a very much wider sweep. The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, asked whether the local authorities can take this on themselves or is it on the Secretary of State's sanction. As I have drafted my Bill, the local authority or public authority has a right to act on its own, but any other person has to publish with the sanction of the Secretary of State. But even if a local or public authority produced material that was considered offensive or indecent or obscene, they could still be prosecuted under Section 3 of the 1889 Act. That part of it seems pretty well watertight. Lord Chorley also drew attention to the relation between the two Acts, and I hope he will be satisfied that at the moment this appears to be the best way to deal with it.

I am also very grateful for the support of my noble friend Lady Summerskill, who is also a doctor, and I agree entirely with her comment about the buildings. There is no question of any of these posters being used to advertise proprietary drugs. Neither local authorities nor public authorities would do this, and if anybody wanted to issue any material of this sort it would have to be sanctioned by the Secretary of State. So I think she will agree that is a complete safeguard so far as that possibility is concerned. My noble friend asked me why I do not like the idea of the poster being in lavatories. It is because of the aura that this whole subject has had: it has always been thought of and dealt with on a lavatorial level. We need to bring the whole subject more into the open, in order to encourage people who may be infected to go along to the clinic, and I feel that it ought to be, for some time, at any rate, taken out of the lavatory; or, alternatively, that the public lavatory should not be the only or the first place considered for the placing of these posters.


My Lords, may I put this point to my noble friend? It is only in the privacy of the lavatory that the infected person feels he can study that kind of poster. If that kind of poster is placed elsewhere, most people—infected people or anybody else—will not feel they can stand and look at it while other people can see them doing it. It must be put in the privacy of some place where they can study it, and even write down the name of the clinic.


My Lords, I take my noble friend's point, and I think we will take it further in the campaign. What the Health Education Council have done is to produce a small leaflet with a plain cover which in fact goes into even greater detail than the posters and also directs people to doctors and clinics, in order to give the information out that way. The poster will lead to the demand for the leaflet.

The point that my noble friend made about shortage of clinics and doctors is quite true, but I know her too well to think she would be suggesting that the campaign should be kept down simply in order to keep it in line with the number of doctors and clinics available. Because, as she knows, in the past when people have been encouraged to come forward to see doctors, sometimes that has led to an increase in the facilities. I think that an increase in facilities must be pressed for; and when there is an increased demand, as unfortunately there will have to be, for these facilities, we may get better facilities. I have on other occasions expressed the view that we still do not include in the basic curriculum for the training of doctors and nurses sufficient education in regard to sex and human relationships. Doctors have told me that many of their colleagues take a rather punitive attitude towards these diseases. This situation also has to be tackled. I am grateful for the support of the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie and I take his point. I think the question of the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, was answered by my noble friend Lady Serota. I was worried lest perhaps he wondered why Scotland had been omitted, perhaps thinking that there was no V.D. there. My Lords, Scotland was left out because it does not come within my province, but comes under the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Finally, though I do this rather reluctantly, I feel that I must gently take up my noble friend Lady Summerskill's point about the pill. I do not want to spoil her field day on this, but the fact is that the big increase in the incidence of V.D. is among young people of 16 to 20. This is not a group which widely uses the pill. It is used by those in older age groups. I think my noble friend is 'perfectly right in saying that the mechanical and other contraceptives provide more protection; but I imagine that a great many people who contract V.D. possibly take no precautions at all. There was V.D. in 1889, and the pill did not exist then; nor did it exist during the last war, when the V.D. figures were extremely high. The more important point, I think, is to stress the danger of promiscuity and the health hazards attaching to it, as well as the personality danger.

I have always said, in discussing this matter, that for long-term effectiveness any campaign of this sort must be backed by a comprehensive programme of sex education, and also by a change in social attitudes. I do not think that any campaign can, on its own, achieve a great deal. But it can start the whole thing off and give an effective lead. As this Bill has nothing to do with the pill but is concerned with V.D., with which we have to deal irrespective of the pill, I think that is all I need say on that point. I hope that I have been able to answer the few points that were raised and that your Lordships are now convinced that although this is a small but limited amendment of the existing law it can in fact do a great deal. I hope that your Lordships will support the Bill—in other words, that you will help me to get half a loaf now, rather than our having to wait perhaps into the distant future for the whole loaf.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.