HL Deb 02 July 1981 vol 422 cc343-50

7.1 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

At this stage of the Bill I wish briefly to thank your Lordships for the reception you have given to it. We have had some interesting debates, mainly promoted by the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. The House has shown itself clearly in favour of the Bill, and for that I am very grateful.

This is a small Bill but it sets out to cure an obvious evil in the display of pornographic material which now appears in shop windows and bookstalls and undoubtedly disturbs the public, especially parents with young children whose minds are caught and disturbed by such pornographic displays. That is all the Bill does. It does not set out to cure the evil of the nature of the material; that is a much bigger and more difficult subject, and I believe that a good deal of the interesting comments of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, particularly related to the Williams Report, were directed at the major problem of a satisfactory definition of "obscenity".

I am sure my noble friend Lord Belstead would be the first to agree that the law at present is unsatisfactory and almost unenforceable in that respect. But here we are not trying to cure that major problem, and clearly that is not an issue which a Private Member could take up in a Private Member's Bill. That is a very difficult issue for the Government and I still hope that somehow at some time the Home Secretary may be able to tackle it, but that is for another day.

This small measure has had a really astonishing degree of support in the other place. It will I believe be a really useful contribution in a narrow sphere and it is in that spirit that I say my valedictory words for it, again with grateful thanks to noble Lords on all sides for being so helpful in supporting it during its passage through the House. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Nugent of Guildford.)

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, the Bill now comes to its inglorious conclusion. I say that with the fullest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, who has sponsored it with good nature, ability, skill and success. But nothing downgrades a Bill more in your Lordships' House than to put on its concluding stage during the supper break. The inference underlying the selection of this time to deal with the conclusion of the Bill is that we should not spend too much time on it, and only a few moments ago the normal supper interval of one hour was reduced to 45 minutes. I am not sure what happens if we exceed the time.

Lord Belstead

And this is only the first course, my Lords.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

Nevertheless, I have a few remarks to make especially about the general atmosphere in which it has been necessary to consider the Bill. Putting it on at this moment puts an additional constraint on the time of the House to deal with it. After all, noble Lords have gone for their refreshment and they will come back at the appointed time impatiently waiting for the resumption of the main business of the evening, which promises to be rather long.

I had a good deal to say about the main issue of time on another Bill earlier this week. Indeed, there could be, or could have been, similar anxieties about this Bill that we have with the Zoo Licensing (No. 2) Bill which awaits its Committee stage tomorrow. This Bill and the one that is coming on tomorrow does raise in serious form the whole procedure of dealing with Private Members' Bills. This Bill, like the Zoo Bill, has to get back to another place by the end of next week if it is to become law because we have amended the Bill slightly and the formalities of approving the Lords' amendments have to be gone through in another place on the last day allotted to Private Members' Bills in the House of Commons for this Session.

I hope the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, will allow me to say that he has had in his mind, quite properly, the whole time the fact that if this Bill were substantially amended to raise fresh controversy about it in another place, it would be in dire peril in the latter stages of its progress through another place. Indeed, if the amendments were substantial—and the two we have made are not substantial—determined obstruction in another place might easily wreck it. I hope something can be done to remedy situations which in this House amount to undue pressure on the House of Lords in our parliamentary procedure. That is to be deplored and resented and it should be remedied, and I hope consideration will be given to it.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

It is all so pitiful, my Lords.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, the amendments which the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, accepted were not substantial, though both of them were important, and I do not think they will cause any serious difficulty next week. I hope not. Nevertheless, it would not be unfair to say that in considering the Bill and the amendments I moved to it, considerations of time have been present in the minds of noble Lords who have wanted to see the measure through.

I am not suggesting that the amendments were not adequately considered on their merits, but when considering the merits of a matter and one is being pressurised on time, that is not the most congenial atmosphere in which to carry out our debates. I have no complaints. I am just uttering a caution about the way in which things can go in your Lordships' House.

I wish to refer to another hazard which the noble Lord has overcome. There was an occasion during the Committee stage when there were not enough noble Lords in the Chamber for a Division to be effective. Had I known that at the time, and had I pressed for a Division, the Committee stage would have come abruptly to an end. Happily, I did not know. I am glad to have been spared the temptation of employing obstruction as an obstacle to the Bill. I do not like legislation by lottery, which this is, but I do not like defeating legislation by obstruction.

In relation to some of the amendments that I moved some noble Lords—not the noble Lord, Lord Nugent—suggested that all the ground had been covered in another place and that there was no need to spend a lot of time in your Lordships' House going over it all again; the matter had been fully debated in another place. That is no reason for cutting short our consideration of a Bill that comes from another place. After all, the Transport Bill, which is the main business to be resumed in the House this evening after the supper break, has already been gone over in another place. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, is the last person to complain that what has been gone over in another place should not be gone over again, because he has defied another place on seat belts and he has triumphed over the opinion of another place which had considered the matter over and over again. So I think that—

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I should like to remind him that he has just acquitted me of charging him in regard to repeating debates that have been gone over in another place. I have made no such charge against him; others may have done.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am merely making the point that none of us should refrain from going over a Bill that comes from another place simply because it has already been gone over.

I turn to another relevant matter. When we were considering the Bill on Report another place was for the first time debating the Williams Report and its recommendations, which came out in 1979. It was quite interesting that that debate coincided with our own. I do not know whether members of the Williams Committee will feel very comforted by what was said in that debate. I believe that all chairmen of committees who undertake valuable public service must derive their satisfaction from the work that they do and not from what is done with what they say. I speak from experience. The only committee of which I was chairman and about which I could feel any real satisfaction was that on teachers' pay in 1974. Then I realised that if it is morals, you get nowhere, but if it is money, there is somebody waiting for it—and indeed they waited and got quite a lot. So I think that we should on our own account add thanks to the Williams Committee for what it did.

I turn to another interesting occurrence which I think is relevant to the Third Reading of the Bill; namely the demonstration that I happened to see outside the magistrates' court in Horseferry Road. I thought, "Ah! here we are, a private prosecution. Now let's see what we make of it". The police were on duty. There were cameras there, the media men were clustering around, with the police telling them to go away or stand further back. I do not know for whom they were waiting. I do not know whether they were waiting for the absentee prosecutor, or whether they were hoping to see the defendant. I do not know for whom they were waiting, but it was quite an occasion. When I see a case such as that—with an absentee prosecutor who has not even seen what is alleged, but who got a solicitor to go to the show as the principal prosecution witness, and with the committal proceedings becoming embroiled in the obscurities and the tangle of the law—I have very little confidence in the sacred principle of private prosecutions. Incidentally, I have noticed how some noble Lords and some Members of another place have stuck firmly to the right of the citizen to maintain his right to go to the courts on his own if those who should enforce the law neglect or refuse to do so.

I now turn to another subject about which I feel deep concern. I recall that under the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876 no right is given to the citizen to undertake a private prosecution. Who can prosecute under the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876? The police?—No. The Attorney-General?—No. The Director of Public Prosecutions?—No. A prosecution may not be taken under that Act except with the consent of the Home Secretary, and so the sovereign state of science has a law unto itself. The citizen may not enter, he may not prosecute; it is a closed shop. I believe that we should bear in mind these little inconsistencies, if they are not little hypocrises, when we look at the rights of the citizen in different contexts.

I shall conclude my speech with a few reflections upon the main substance of the Bill. So many people are concerned with sex more than with any other part of human nature. Sex and sexual equipment is the sum and substance of indecency and obscenity in the minds of many. The older people grow, the more they appear to disapprove of what they see, hear and read about sex. They appear to think a great deal more about sexual offences than about sex, which probably is understandable. Celibate priests are preoccupied with the subject. While the Victorian hypocrises still linger, the battle between crabbed age and youth becomes more fierce. Well, the young will soon be older, and it will be interesting to see—if we do—whether they can get these primitive problems of their own human nature into better balance than our own generation appears to have done.

Meanwhile, I congratulate the sponsor of the Bill in your Lordships' House, and indeed the sponsor in another place, on the most agreeable way in which they have steered it into port in both Houses. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent. I hope that the Bill will relieve people of normal sensibilities of embarrassing experiences without setting in motion the harassing tactics of professional moralists.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby will go down in history as a person who protected animals from cruelty. I do not understand why a man of such gentle nature should impose such cruelty upon his fellow Peers when he speaks. The sole purpose of my rising is to contratulate the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, on the manner in which he has dealt with this important little measure in this House. He has done this in a way which those of us who know him would expect of him. It has been done with that cool, calm courtesy which is part and parcel of the noble Lord. I think this is an important little measure. I am expressing a personal view from the Opposition Front Bench. I consider it is a very desirable measure, and the sooner it goes on to the statute book, the better.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford on the way in which he has brought the Bill through your Lordships' House. At the same time I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, that it is not only Members of this House of his generation who have taken offence at some of the displays that we see in shops, not only in Soho, but in other parts of London and in other parts of this country. As I said at Second Reading, not only my generation but people younger than I am have taken offence.

I have a strong objection to people making a lot of money through voyeurism, and as far as I have seen the noble Lord has attempted throughout this Bill to protect voyeurs and make it more difficult for people with young families to take their children throughout our towns and villages without suffering a considerable amount of offence in some instances. I have no intention to be offensive to him, but just to point out what I have gathered from what he has said during this Bill.

Viscount Barrington

My Lords, as there is nobody else present on the Liberal Benches and this is not a party issue, I should like to take the opportunity to say two things. One is to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, on a Bill in respect of which, as I think he knows, I approve of everything except that in my opinion, which is not a Liberal opinion, it touches only what I may call the tip of the "viceberg". The only time I intervened in the debates on this Bill was to try to stress the fact that this is a Bill about indecency and not obscenity; and I entirely agree that that is a much more difficult matter which, as has been agreed all round the House, should be taken up by the Government.

The second thing is, if I may, to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, on what I thought was a heroic and titanic effort to get people to consider this Bill seriously, which he did against great odds and which I thought he did admirably and with great good humour at the end. The fact that I disagreed with everything he said is balanced by the fact that I agreed with everything he said in his speech on animals the next day; and I think that if anybody apart from the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, and those who introduced the Bill deserves, congratulations, it is the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. Having said that, I will sit down.

Lord Monson

My Lords, on this Bill I do not stand in total opposition to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, as I do on another matter which we shall be debating shortly. Rather I stand, one might say, at right-angles to him; that is, I sympathise with the Bill, but I also have strong reservations. In the case of both measures my opposition has, of course, absolutely nothing to do with the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, himself, but stems from my concern about any further erosion of our liberties in this country.

Although I acknowledge that this Bill is well-founded, I believe it is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Two or three years ago I would not have said that; I would have entirely agreed with the noble Lord who spoke from the Government Back-Benches. Two or three years ago, in the case of almost every newsagent's you walked into you were confronted with endless vistas of bare flesh, not only at one's own eye level, which was bad enough, but at children's eye level, which was worse still. But since then there has been an entirely voluntary self-censorship, for the most part. Newsagents have, of their own free will, put these magazines up on the top shelf, where one does not see them unless one looks for them, and most of us do not look for them.

I may add that in this respect we are far better off than in most of the traditionally strait-laced Mediterranean countries—in Catholic countries, such as Spain and Portugal, since the death and overthrow of Franco and Caetano, respectively; Italy and Malta; Orthodox countries like Greece and the southern part of Cyprus, and even Islamic Turkey. Everywhere you go in these countries you see bookstalls featuring these "girlie" magazines. It is not very agreeable, certainly, but I think people there believe that it is part of the price one has to pay for a free society.

I think it all depends entirely on exactly where one draws the line. As I said at an earlier stage, the word "indecent" means a thousand different things to a thousand different people, and I was not challenged on that. However, I can only conclude by saying that I hope that the side-effects of the Bill will not be as bad as are feared, and I wish the Bill well.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, all of us, I think, or at least most of us, are in favour of the basic objective of this Bill, though some of us have some worries about it in detail. My main concern about it—almost my only concern, I think—is the freedom it gives to the introduction of private prosecution. I was a little worried that the noble Lord, Lord Nugent—and I think the Government take the same view—felt unable to accept an amendment put down for the purpose of trying to limit the amount of private prosecution which was possible under the Bill. I myself intended to put down an amendment to that effect at Report stage. In fact, I did put it down; unfortunately, I had to leave the House at 12 o'clock. I had hoped that it would come on before that time, but unfortunately it came on at 10 past 12.

My noble friend Lord Houghton was kind enough to refer to the amendment, but naturally enough he preferred one in his own name which had a similar purpose; and I have no reason to suppose that as his eloquence could not carry the day, my own amendment could have fared any better. I do not think it would. I think the limitation of private prosecution which both my noble friend and I sought has been resisted. I am sorry it has been resisted, because it seems to me to be the main imperfection, or perhaps even the only imperfection, in a Bill the purposes of which otherwise seem to me to be admirable.

We have seen recently what can happen in the case of unlimited private prosecution—not unlimited, but in the case of private prosecution in this very difficult area. The ingenuity of private prosecutors is considerable indeed, as we have seen. Even when we carried through both Houses of Parliament, under the Theatres Act, an intention that prosecutions should be disallowed in the case of so-called indecent displays in the theatre, and that they should be allowed only with the fiat of the Attorney-General, apparently a way round that has recently been discovered, and I think that that is what my noble friend Lord Houghton was referring to just now.

So I think there is here opening up the possibility of private prosecution. I hope it will not be unreasonably and unfortunately exploited; and it is with that hope that I conclude what I have to say, adding my own small tribute to the manner in which the Bill has been carried through the House by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent. I repeat again that its general purposes are, I think, wise and proper, and are generally supported, and I hope that the fear I have about the possible exploitation of the Bill will not in fact be proved justified when it becomes an Act.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, may I just add my voice to those of your Lordships who have taken part in the other stages of this Bill, to say that the Government believe this to be a thoroughly worthwhile measure. The discussions we have had in your Lordships' House, and the welcome it has received from your Lordships, have served to confirm and strengthen the Government in that opinion. I should also like to express my appreciation for the skilful manner in which my noble friend Lord Nugent has piloted the Bill through the House. I am sure that not only the sponsor of the Bill, Mr. Sainsbury, in another place, but the House as a whole is greatly indebted to my noble friend.

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.