HL Deb 15 May 1981 vol 420 cc693-714

11.34 a.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a small Bill to remove indecent material from public display. This Private Member's Bill has been approved by the House of Commons and, on this very difficult subject, it is an exceptional achievement to win general approval and to arrive here unscathed. I think this is due to two reasons. The first is the skill and assiduity of the promoter of the Bill, Mr. Timothy Sainsbury. The Bill had no less than five days in Committee and one on Report. so that it was very thoroughly discussed, and it is a notable achievement for a private Member to handle successfully a difficult Bill of this kind. I must say that I am proud to acknowledge him as a distinguished member of our party and I know that he has a great political future ahead of him. I am also delighted to see that the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, is in his new place, no doubt moved by paternal pride. But it is nice to think that he is moving nearer to his distinguished son, of whom I am sure he is very proud.

The second reason is, of course, an intrinsic one and that is the objective of the Bill. It is a very limited objective. It is simply to control displays of pornographic material and it does not attempt to control the nature and the volume of the material itself. Nevertheless, within its limitations, I commend the Bill to noble Lords as a measure to be welcomed. It will, at least, save us from sex displays flaunting themselves at us from shop windows and counters, which, of course, it is especially undesirable for young children to see.

As I say, the Bill has been very thoroughly debated in the Commons, so a detailed exposition from me is not needed now. But, perhaps, I should just explain that the nuisance which the Bill sets out to check is the proliferation of displays of pornographic material on bookstalls and in shop windows, which, of course, is heaviest, as we all know, in places such as Soho in London, but is spreading to the provinces. There is a growing volume of complaints from decent citizens, especially parents with young children, who are very worried at the effect that this is having on their children. It was interesting to see that there was wide support from Members of Parliament from all parties, who were undoubtedly responding to the growing number of complaints from constituents, especially about the proliferation of sex shops.

The substance of the Bill is in Clause 1, which creates the offence of making a public display of indecent material. Subsection (4) of Clause 1 sets out the conventional exclusions of plays, films, television and radio and art galleries. But subsection (3) of Clause 1 is the important feature. It makes a new exclusion for indecent material displayed in a shop in a part which can be reached only by passing a warning notice specifically excluding persons under 18 years of age; and the form of warning notice is specified under subsection (6) of Clause 1. Thus the Bill is ingeniously constructed to ban the offence of display of pornographic material, without precluding adults from access if they wish to buy; and further in the Bill fines have been brought up to today's values.

A point which was debated very fully in the Commons was the term "indecent", as the description of the material to be subjected to this control. Alternatives were considered but, finally, the word "indecent" survived as the best description, and the one most likely to be effective in the courts. No doubt, noble Lords here will wish to debate this point further. For myself, I believe it is probably the best description that we can find. It certainly has the merit of simplicity. I think most people understand what it means, and I commend it.

So much for what is in the Bill. I should deal with an important criticism which was raised in the Commons. that the implication behind the official warning notice is that all sales behind that notice are legal. Therefore, there is cogent criticism of this Bill that its effect will be to encourage even more sales of pornographic material. For myself I recognise that there is great weight in this criticism, but my answer is that this Bill is concerned only with display and it cannot deal with this other point. In fact, as noble Lords will know, all sales of pornographic material are subject to the 1959 Obscene Publications Act and therefore this criticism—which is an important criticism—goes to the ineffectiveness of the law under the 1959 Act.

My noble friends and I had considered putting down a clause to strengthen the law and we received many representations from interested people on this problem, but after much discussion we decided on balance against doing so because we felt that this Bill is good within its range and that if an attempt was made to put in a weighty new clause attempting to control, perhaps, the nature of the material it might well endanger the life of the Bill itself and its prospects of reaching the statute book. Perhaps we shall discuss this aspect at the Committee stage, but I hope that your Lordships will consider that we were right in the decision that we made. Legislation in this field is so technically difficult and so controversial that only Her Majesty's Government can tackle it. It really is beyond the powers of a Private Member's Bill.

I address my concluding remarks to my noble friend Lord Belstead because the ball is firmly in his court and in that of the Home Secretary. The Williams Report which came out nearly 18 months ago, and which we discussed in your Lordships' House last year, is generally thought to be ineffective and unacceptable. It made a very valuable survey of the subject but I believe that the majority of noble Lords who took part in that debate came to the conclusion which I have just mentioned. Meanwhile, the 1959 Act is so discredited that neither the public prosecutor nor the police can prosecute an offence under that Act with any prospect of conviction. Under the 1959 Act the offence of obscenity "such as to tend to deprave and corrupt" has become a byword and the offences provided in the Act are so wide that conviction is now almost impossible.

Since that Act was first put on the statute book some 22 years ago we have seen the porn trade grow into big business, both nationally and internationally, and much of it is closely linked with the world of crime. When the Williams Committee made its survey it estimated that the monthly circulation of pornographic magazines was nearly one million copies and that readership of them was probably around 4 million. No doubt much of this material is soft porn and one would pass it by, but the trend is for an increase in hard porn, including films of a particularly unpleasant nature. The Metropolitan Police strongly condemn this trend. Now a new and even worse dimension has arrived in the form of video tapes. These are being sold by the tens of thousands and catalogues are being issued and circulated which describe the range of video films which are offered on perversion, violence, child porn, and every kind of revolting subject that the mind can imagine and much that it could not.

I do not doubt that your Lordships will remember that the Williams Report considered that most pornographic material was not harmful but it drew the line at films. It was felt that, because of their graphic nature and the movement they depicted, films were particularly insidious and corrupting and should be controlled. Video tapes are, of course, right in that field.

I appreciate that both the Home Secretary and my noble friend have given much sympathetic reception to the representation made by my noble friends and myself and I believe the time has come when we should ask them to take some action in this field to make the law effective. In another place Mr. Mayhew —who is the Home Office Minister dealing with this Private Bill—gave valuable help with the Bill, which I am sure was welcomed, and he indicated possible action in this field by way of licensing sex shops. This could be helpful in limiting the number of sex shops and therefore protecting decent, honest shopkeepers from waking up one morning and finding that they have an appalling neighbour selling all this unpleasant apparatus. Perhaps my noble friend will tell your Lordships' House what action he contemplates taking in this field; I hope that it will be effective, even though it is a minor issue.

The major issue of a new law is to replace and strengthen the 1959 Act and indeed fulfill its Long Title. Will my noble friend say whether his right honourable friend the Home Secretary intends to have a debate in the House of Commons—because it has never had one—and take a strong line over indicating what action the Government propose to take to give an effective law which will control this very dangerous new development in our lives, which is undoubtedly having a damaging and corrupting effect—especially among the young. With my strong support for this valuable Bill, and with the comments I have made to my noble friend about certain criticisms which may circulate around the Bill with regard to what the Bill does not do about matters which are really for the Government. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Nugent of Guildford.)

11.47 a.m.

Lord Mischcon

My Lords, the House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, for his customary moderate, lucid, and reasoned speech in presenting this Bill. As the noble Lord has reminded us, this Bill was introduced as a Private Member's Bill in another place by the honourable Member for Hove and it received support from all parts of the House. This Bill is directed at what I believe your Lordships would agree are the unacceptable features which are all too increasingly befouling our streets— mostly but not exclusively in our big cities and not least in areas of our capital, of which Soho is a particularly unpleasant example. These indecent public displays cause annoyance and, often, offence and disgust to the majority of passers-by. They cheapen our national reputation in the eyes of many of our foreign visitors and constitute a most unhealthy corrupting influence on our young.

The Bill has set itself sensible limits. Like the Wolfenden Committee, of which I was a member and which dealt with the criminal law relating to prostitution and homosexual offences, this Bill has differentiated between matters which involve private adult moral judgments and the appropriate province of the criminal law which exists in this area to protect those who need protection from corruption or from gross offence. It has concentrated on an aspect which I believe should cause no controversy among reasonable people. Indeed, it will be remembered that the comparatively recent Williams Report on obscenity and film censorship, to which the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, referred, emphasised the strength of feeling which had been expressed in the evidence which the committee had received about indecent public displays.

The question may be asked whether there are not already sufficient legislative powers to deal with this mischief. The fact is that the legislation that exists is out of date, both in context and in the description of the offence, prescribes penalties which are too meagre, or contains provisions such as that requiring the need to show that depravity or corruption is likely to follow. As a result, very few prosecutions have been brought. Indeed, an offence of a somewhat similar nature to that covered by the Bill is contained in the Vagrancy Act 1834, cheek by jowl with being a petty chapman (I am afraid I must confess to your Lordships that I do not know what a chapman is, let alone a petty chapman) wandering abroad and trading without being duly licensed, and with being a person wandering abroad and lodging under a tent or in any cart or wagon and not giving a good account of himself. It is, incidentally, an interesting thought that many reputable, noble and perhaps gallant members of your Lordships' House may unwittingly have committed an offence under that section. But this Bill, in simple language and with the use of very direct English, concentrates on the mischief with which it attempts to deal, has sensible penalties and makes the offence subject to the test of whether the public display is or is not indecent.

That brings one to the question to which the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, referred: should indecency be defined in the Bill and is indecency—as against, for example, offensiveness—the proper test? It may be that these matters will be probed in Committee in your Lordships' House, as indeed they were in another place. Suffice it to say in a Second Reading debate that there are many things which could constitute an offensive display which your Lordships would not want to be covered by this or perhaps any criminal Bill, that there is considerable merit, as I see it, in making it the test of the reasonable man or woman as to what is indecent and that any attempt at a statutory definition is likely to produce loopholes, of which I am afraid that my learned profession would quite properly take advantage when defending somebody charged with this offence. There is, indeed, a good judicial guide to be found in the words of Lord Reid in a 1972 case which, with your Lordships' permission, I quote: Indecent exhibitions in public have been widely interpreted. Indecency is not confined to sexual indecency. Indeed, it is difficult to find any limit short of saying that it includes anything which an ordinary decent man or woman would find to be shocking, disgusting and revolting". I will shed no tears for the sex shop proprietor, the sex cinema proprietor or even a newsagent who has to make a judgment as to whether a display he proposes is or is not indecent. If he is in doubt, let him err on the safe side.

Finally, it will have been noticed that television broadcasts are excluded from this Bill. I realise that were they not excluded the fate of this Bill would be in jeopardy, and I certainly would not want that. I realise, too, that there are voluntary procedures under which television authorities should control not only what is portrayed on the screen but also the timing of it. There is a substantial body of opinion, which is neither oversensitive nor square, that there is, both on BBC and independent television, an unwelcome volume of indecent displays of sadism, of violence and of sex, all too often when children would quite normally still be up, and even in the case of adults when many of them do not expect it and are offended by it. Indeed, this matter was raised at the Committee stage of the Bill in another place, and the hope was expressed that the television authorities would heed what was said on this subject and exercise their voluntary duties somewhat more carefully and stringently. I personally hope that raising this matter again in your Lordships' House will add some further weight to what has already been said.

This is a Private Members' Bill, and I am sure it will be understood that the views which I venture to express do not in any way bind my noble friends. However, I express the hope from this Bench that the Bill will receive not only a Second Reading but a warm and general welcome.

11.56 a.m.

Lord Sainsbury

My Lords, first I must declare a familial interest in this Bill for it was introduced in the other place, as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has so kindly indicated, by a kinsman of mine. However, it is not for that reason that I support it as a useful Bill. Although modest in scope, it has a narrow but none the less important objective. It is the latest of a long line of not less than six attempts in eight years to control indecent display by legislation.

In 1971, the Government gave their assurance that they would be taking action in this area. No action has been taken, and it is still the case that the only legislation on the Statute Book to control indecent displays is over 150 years old. It has been described as being "confused" and "antiquated".

During the course of the Second Reading of the Bill on 30th January, Mr. Patrick Mayhew, MP, Minister of State at the Home Office, referred to the fact that there is a lot to be said in favour of the consolidation, clarification and modernisation of the law that would result from this Bill being passed. This is well illustrated in the schedule to the Bill of enactments repealed.

The Bill does not attempt to deal with the whole field of pornography, to impose censorship, or to interfere with the rights of the individual. But freedom is not a licence to offend other people. It is known that indecent displays increasingly do so. This was made clear in the evidence given to the Williams Committee. It is necessary to protect children, to say nothing of the embarrassment of their parents when taking children along certain streets in Soho, or along similar streets in other cities—or, for that matter, the embarrassment of taking one's grandchildren into a tobacconist or newsagent's to buy sweets and finding pornographic material on display next to the confectionery. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, in his evidence to the Williams Committee made the point with great eloquence and simplicity. He said that there really is such a thing as the age of innocence and it is important—indeed vital—that that precious age should be protected so far as possible by the law of the land.

Not unnaturally, as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has already said, in view of the difficulties of definition there was criticism during the Bill's passage through the other place of the choice of the word "indecent", and various alternatives—for instance, "obscene", "offensive" or "deprave and corrupt"—were discussed. In view of the limited objective of the Bill, I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that "indecent" is the best choice. It has been used many times in our legislation and as recently as the Protection of Children Act 1978. The late Lord Reid—as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has said—in reference to its meaning said, in 1972 that it included anything that an ordinary, decent man or woman would find to be shocking, disgusting or revolting.

The usefulness of this Bill, and for that matter of legislation, surely depends upon its enforceability, and the penalties in the Bill for breaking the law should be appropriate to the nature of the offence. On the question of enforceability it would he interesting to hear the view of the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. What is the attitude of the Police Federation and the Police Superintendents' Association? Are the police satisfied that they can get at the people who are really responsible and derive financial benefit from causing or permitting indecent displays?

This Bill had an unopposed Second and Third reading in the other place. It had the encouragement and help of the Government in its drafting. I earnestly hope that it will have a swift and smooth passage through this House.

12.4 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, we all have a high respect for the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, on the grounds of his own merits and now in addition he has a share in the paternity of this Bill, which gives us additional grounds for respecting him. I know that I shall carry with me my acting Leader, who spoke so well just now—the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon—if I say how much we regret the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, is now one of the "separated brethren", but no one has been more generous to the Labour Party than he has been over many years and we can only hope that the day of his return will not be long postponed. However, that is not the topic for this morning.

There was a time some years ago when I was identified in the minds of some people exclusively with this unpleasant subject. I remember a taxi dropping me at my flat and the taxi driver saying to me "Excuse me, I can never remember your name. I know you are Lord Porn but what is your other name?" That was my reputation at that time and I think that, as with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, if you become identified with a subject of that kind, people soon forget which side you are on; you are just a pornography man or a homosexual man. Nowadays I am happy to follow the splendid leadership provided by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, and, outside this House by the Festival of Light and, above all, by Mrs. Whitehouse, CBE, who started on this struggle long before I came into it and whose name must always be honoured in this area.

The Bill before us is a modest measure and I welcome it as a small step in the right direction. I would welcome any step, however small, so long as it was in the right direction—and I only hope that it is a step in the right direction. The intention is obviously good but a great deal will depend on the enforcement. I am sorry that television is not included, if only because television itself is paraded in many public places. But what is more dangerous—and I realise that there was no way in which this could have been dealt with in this particular Bill—is that indecent material, although unlawful when publicly displayed, may be made available in back rooms or other separate premises provided a warning notice is displayed, forbidding entry to those under 18. The question is whether that is good news or bad news for the pornographers. I look at things sometimes from the pornographers' point of view.

Baroness Gaitskell

Hear, hear!

The Earl of Longford

Oh, no, my Lords, not from a sympathetic point of view but I manage to put myself in their place, as with theology, for example, where, though I do not believe in the personal Devil so much as perhaps some of the Bishops would wish me to, I find it quite easy to imagine that I am the Devil—and other people find that possible to believe, too, in my case. In the case of pornographers I ask myself seriously whether this is bad news for them and, if it is not, that is rather disappointing.

It is not clear from reports which reach us from that murky area whether the pornographers do regard this as bad news. It may be that if they have all the necessary machinery in a back room, with the notices, and so on, it will be rather easier to avoid prosecution in regard to hard porn, which would otherwise be dealt with. I hope that is not so, but clearly it is a danger to be guarded against. I am quite sure that, as the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, said, the enforcement will decide whether or not the whole thing is going to be successful. However, I wish the Bill well, though I emphasise once again that it is only a small step at best.

When we produced our report on pornography and it was debated in this House at the end of 1972, we outlined a three-pronged attack on pornography. The moderate pornography—if any pornography can be said to be moderate—would be illegal if it was displayed; the harder forms of pornography would be illegal if they were produced at all and, thirdly, those who were exploited in the production of it would be protected. That last point has been partially covered since that time. This Bill deals with the first of those three aspects, but not with the graver question of how we deal with obscenity or pornography which is utterly vicious and for which there is nothing to be said at all except that it is very hard to pin it down, legally or otherwise. That is the only excuse that can be given for not having dealt with it long ago.

We must all recognise that there are many people, not only in this Chamber but millions outside, who will never be happy until pornography is definitely smacked down. I went to a remarkable one man show, Abraham Lincoln, last night, and the rather famous words were spoken. When Lincoln was quite a young man and was shown an example of slavery, he said: Whenever I meet that thing, I shall hit it hard". This country has yet to tackle pornography in earnest. A beginning has been made. I congratulate those who have been responsible for bringing forward this Bill, and, with the qualifications I have mentioned, I wish it well.

12.11 p.m.

Lord de Clifford

My Lords, I will intervene for only a very short period in this debate, but I should like to join with other noble Lords in welcoming this Bill which has been so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent. On some occasions I do not find myself in tune with propositions put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, but on this occasion I do. I think this is a very good Bill. It is, unfortunately, one of these Bills which have to be introduced to deal with a subject which apparently has to be dealt with little by little, rather like a caterpillar eating a leaf. This aspect goes right throughout many phases in this country, mainly because the Government will not take a deep breath and dive in and do something. When all these Bills come before your Lordships' House, whatever they may be, we always come back to the question of enforcement. There are Bills of every kind which if they were enforced would be such a help to stop nuisances and other things taking place. I hope that when this Bill does become law, as no doubt it will, enforcement will be undertaken on it.

Turning to this question of indecent displays, I have walked in various places through this great city of ours and I have seen some of these, and I think it is a very degrading thing that visitors to our country—which always right through the ages has been very dignified and very full of something difficult to describe, but I think tradition—should go through some of our streets now and sec the filth which is produced. If this Bill takes just one step forward to stop that, I am right behind it.

The other thing I do not like, which I read in the press, is the use of these indecent displays literally to blackmail people into allowing them. There was a case reported in which some chap who started a sex shop, to which people objected, said,"Well, if you are going to close me down, I am going to open six more just to keep it going". When we come to a situation like that I think it is about time we stepped in, and I think this Bill will go a little way at least to stop it.

I also agree with other noble Lords that we cannot do anything about television. I think some of the things that get on television now, even though I am considerably broadminded, absolutely horrify me. I cannot think who allows them to be put on and what state of mind these people are in. If there is anything that could be done—other than in this Bill, which I should hate to lose—to stop that, I shall be in favour of. I wish this Bill well. I am sure it is going to have a very interesting Committee stage from learned Lords about this House, in which I shall be very interested to take part from time to time. But I do wish the Bill well and thank my noble friend for introducing it.

12.15 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, for the purposes of this Bill the House might just as well have resolved itself into a committee of grandparents. I feel in a very invidious position this morning, because mine apparently will be the only dissenting voice. I feel almost as if I should erect here and now the warning prescribed in the Bill and advise your Lordships that if you would rather not listen to comments which will offend you deeply now is the time to leave. I do this with great reluctance, but quite frankly I had anticipated a different kind of debate. I never believed that your Lordships' House would take this Bill on a plate with quite the relish which has been the case this morning. Surely this Bill deserves some controversy. It is not a Bill for a cosy gathering of your Lordships' House on a Friday morning to send reaction on its way. No, my Lords, if for no other reason than that there must be a dissenting voice, I feel a little more courage in saying what I am going to say.

I entirely disagree with the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, about the step-by-step approach to a matter of this kind. Rather do I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, when he called upon the Government to look at this whole problem—and it is a very large one indeed—more comprehensively, more deeply and with greater authority than any Private Member can bring to bear on the subject.

I am fundamentally opposed to this kind of legislation. This Bill, in my opinion, is superficial; it is narrow, it is naïve and it is escapist. It is part of the concern, and even of the sense of guilt, of adults with their own sexuality and that of the young over whom they have lost control. This Bill is largely about the young. It is they whom we think we should protect and it is they whom we bar from going behind the screen. This Bill is a reflection upon the parents, the educational authorities and the priests of almost every religious denomination, not to mention Members of Parliament themselves, because the treatment of this subject has been more that of the policeman than that of a person with profound understanding of the deep mysteries and impulses and social aspects of this problem.

The sexuality of both men and women, and particularly of women, and especially of the young, has broken through the barriers of ignorance and taboos and the repressions imposed by the strict upbringing of the young of my own and subsequent generations. Liberation of thought, knowledge and experience has followed the irresistible march of the young towards a new awareness of sense of power. They want to live and be happy, for they are very pessimistic about the future. We have seen a startling emancipation of the young in our time. A revolution in methods and saturation of communications has widened the horizons of young people. They are no longer willing to be mere apprentices to what they feel are the questionable values and the human follies and cruelty around them. They are creating a world of their own —a world of dissent, impatience, idealism and action. Young people have forced the pace themselves much to the shaking of grey heads and long beards, and often with open disapproval. If they have now gone too far it is because elders and parents did not want them to go at all, so they just went. The young have broken away or, as some believe, have broken loose.

The presumed need for this Bill is the measure of our failure to take youth seriously and our feeling that they are to blame for the generation gap. We tend to believe that they have distanced themselves from us, and not we from them. As usual, Parliament is asked to deal with symptoms of a deep social disturbance and changing values without probing into the underlying causes. We do not expect the House of Commons to hold seminars on the meaning of life and what it is all about. They serve under the pressures of democracy. When Mr. Tony Benn says that 50 million people cannot be wrong, the answer is that they can be and usually are wrong. Democracy is all right as long as you do not give way to it. I believe that your Lordships' House should be the oracle of the parliamentary system. But surely your Lordships have not lived up to that this morning? Your Lordships have given your gracious consent far too easily, far too briefly to a substantial change in liberty and opportunity for access to material which is available to the public. I do not believe that this Bill would have emanated from this House. It is interesting that the previous attempts to legislate in this field have come from the other place. Your Lordships may ask, what are my qualifications to talk as I do?

Baroness Gaitskell

Hear, hear!

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I can only offer them humbly. The first is that I was the first chairman of the Young Volunteer Force Foundation with the late Lord Selwyn-Lloyd and Mr. Jo Grimond, which was then one of the Labour Government's first ventures into institutional activity of a voluntary nature to recruit young people into social service. My other qualification is personal experience. In my lifetime war and the threat of war swept the frustrations and discontents of three generations of young people into battle. Millions never came back; world conflict killed them off. I was lucky; I did come back. However, my youth was taken care of from the age of 17 to 22 in the First World War. In the years of peace, or what goes for peace, we have not known what to do with the young.

Let us consider conditions today. Widespread pessimism and frustrations is being fed on picture of shooting and violence—real and theatrical—on every television screen in the world. I certainly endorse what has been said by my noble friend Lord Mishcon about the notice that should be taken by the broadcasting authorities of the mood expressed in Parliament—without necessarily agreeing with it—about the way in which they discharge their responsibilities. Nevertheless, I think that this Bill mocks the perplexities and the plight of the young. We expose them to the corruption of almost every evil in society, but what worries us most about them is sex. Let us be absolutely frank about it, The sexuality of young people, and again especially girls, is being promoted and exploited commercially. The "girlie" magazines and page 3 of the Sun newspaper evidently satisfy a wide range of readership. I notice noble Lords looking at the Sun newspaper in the Library. I do myself, but then indecency is in the eyes of the beholder.

However, the spread of what we call hard pornography and the more daring portrayal of explicit sex is more than a lot of people can stand. This Bill is really saying that it offends grown-ups, it embarrasses timid wives, it upsets innocent daughters; bookshops must be turned into peepshows, porn must go into the pen—hence this Bill. All right, we are still going to treat young people up to the age of 18 as children. They will go from childhood to having the right to vote. They will go from childhood to having the right to go behind the screen. They will jump from juveniles to adults overnight when they reach the age of 18. If that is the best that Parliament can do on the type of step-by-step approach made popular by Mr. James Prior in another context, then I suppose we must deal with it seriously.

We have had the painstaking work and advice of a wise and thoughtful committee and I suppose that some people would think that this Bill gets us somewhere—not exactly where Professor Williams and his committee recommended us to go, but at least somewhere. One way of getting somewhere is to stop something and that, indeed, is what the Bill is all about. In the debates in another place some Members proudly displayed the decency of their upbringing and the worthy prejudices of the working class. I have no patience with them. No one can tell me anything about that. Nothing in the repressive disciplines and the narrow life of my own youth would persuade me to support, still less to sponsor, any Bill of this kind. It is a middle class Bill reflecting middle class values.

I notice that the Government are keeping out of it and the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, said that they should come into it feet first, if in no other way. Hitherto, in connection with this Bill in its earlier stages, they started off with affectionate neutrality—the kiss of death sometimes—but they warmed up to it later and gave more positive encouragement to it. However, it is worth noting—and I hope that this is not too discordant a note—that this cosmetic treatment of a deep and mysterious side to human nature comes from the Conservative Party. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, was proud that it did so, and even tried to drag the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, into the Conservative net.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting him in the midst of his not indecent but eccentric display, will he kindly take it from me that many members—I should have thought nearly all the members—of the party which he adorns are delighted to be associated with Conservative members in this Bill?

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am sure they are. This shows that sometimes the pretensions of Front Bench spokesmen do not include the assent of all the people behind them.

I now turn to the Bill itself. The Williams Committee recommended that the aim should be to protect the ordinary citizen from reasonable offence. It recommended that the printed word should be excluded, and I am delighted to see that this has been done in the Bill. It wanted to direct its purpose primarily to curbing a public nuisance, and it more than once stressed the need to avoid offence to the public and also to avoid exposing young people to material of this kind. However, if we are to rely on the Williams Committee for any part of this Bill—which I think we do—it recommended other things which have purposely been left out of the Bill. The important one was the use of the word "indecent". This word occurs again in the Bill. It has a fairly narrow meaning to most people, notwithstanding what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said about it. Most people think that indecency has to deal with sex. Personally, I find much more offensive than sex in any form whatever violence, cruelty and horror. It is astonishing how much of this we can see on our television screens, which will be open to the under-eighteens all the time, whatever is shown upon them.

The Williams Report recommended this wider scope in defining what was "offensive" to the public. I entirely agree that television should not be included in the Bill. It would wreck the television authorities if it were; the police would never be out of the place. However, I think that this Bill does little to help those concerned on one side of the counter or the other to decide what is indecent. The answer may not be merely a matter of taste, but it may become a matter of proceedings and of law.

I think that if we are to legislate afresh on this thorney and hackneyed subject, we ought to steer our way with greater care. Let us consider the subjective judgments to be made from the beginning to the end of the piece. First, there is the publisher; secondly, the wholsaler; thirdly, the retailer; fourthly, the customer; fifthly, the public are brought in—the public who may be offended; sixthly, there are the police who may have to act and seize the goods; seventhly, someone has to decide whether to prosecute; and eightly, if a prosecution takes place, some magistrates' bench must decide whether or not to convict. So eight separate subjective judgments can be made on the construction of the word "indecent".

The mischief of the Bill is that it adapts the Williams remedy to the old formula. I would rather have no Bill at all than, first, deal piecemeal with the report and, secondly, mutilate the report, which I think is the most acceptable foundation document that we have had on this subject. So if we want Williams to find the remedy, we should get the matter in the Williams' perspective.

As I said a moment ago, I believe that what is indecent in the eye of the beholder and what may cause the ordinary citizen reasonable offence is much more likely to be a reliable judgment. "Offence" is what people feel; I think that "indecency" is what they think. There is a difference between the two and that emerged in the Williams Report. Anyway, I am sure that in Committee we shall examine—as was done in another place—the alternative to the basic word used in this Bill.

The Minister in another place said that in the context of the Bill it would be a mistake to define "indecency" or to replace it with some other test. He adopted the well-known Conservative principle that if we have had it for 100 years, let us stick to it rather than try something new. Reference having been made elsewhere to the fact that we have been using the word for 100 years, I am prompted to ask: how successful has it been? The law has been unpredictable. Its administration has been capricious and it has become almost unenforceable. When juries became reluctant to convict, the law of obscenity lost its teeth. Yet in this Bill we have a new criminal offence with heavy penalties, including that of imprisonment. We create new powers of entry and search—by force, if necessary —and turn this into the creation of a new branch of the criminal law.

Who, then, is to prosecute? Is the right of prosecution concealed somewhere in this Bill? The answer is, "yes, it is". I believe that the last thing we want is to have the right of prosecution on a difficult and delicate matter of this kind, which is almost inevitably a matter of subjective judgment, in the hands of private citizens who can put other citizens on the rack. I cannot believe that we want to delegate our conscience even to the ordinary man in the street, much less to some people who are self-appointed moralists in our community. However, the Minister in another place came down in favour of the right to private prosecution. I certainly believe that this should be considered carefully in this House.

I should like to make one or two final observations and also apologise to the House for keeping your Lordships so long. However, when all the other speeches have been in favour of the Bill perhaps I am entitled to a little bonus of time in opposing the Bill. I must add that pornography has corrupted more members of the police force than is generally realised. It has been a very sad and wide source of corruption among the police. Those of us who sat on the Salmon Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life were given a glimpse of the gravity of that situation. I would prefer that the authority for prosecution was in the hands of chief constables, even though we may have to put up with one or two puritan chief constables if that were so.

Finally, I think that the period of adjustment to the provisions of the Bill should be longer than the three months provided in the last clause of the Bill. I believe that all sorts of changes must be made. Values must be adjusted to what should be placed behind the screen and what should be left on public view. The book and magazine trade, together with shopkeepers, all have to adjust themselves to classification and a separation of their stocks, which they have not been called upon to do before in such a refined manner. I certainly hope that a longer period of adjustment will be given. My concluding words are that I cannot, I regret, join in the general chorus of approval, and it is a tribute to your Lordships' patience and tolerance that you have sat through my speech so far.

Lord Morris

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him whether he is seriously suggesting that it is the prerogative of the aged to be scandalised?

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I do not know the answer to that question. I hope that nobody has been scandalised, and still less do I think that many older people will be scandalised by what they see anywhere. Nevertheless, we are discussing a Bill which attempts to give them some protection from being scandalised, if that is the word to use.

12.41 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, with your Lordships' indulgence, I should like to add a few words to what has been said in support of my noble friend Lord Nugent in this context, that I have supported him so often that it was natural that he should ask me to speak in this debate again. Unfortunately, I was so preoccupied with other business of the House yesterday that I forgot to put my name down. I should like to thank him for introducing this Bill and to congratulate the promoter of the Bill in the other place. Prostitution is a general evil to which we do not know the answer, but I think that the transformation of the streetwalker into the call girl is the reduction of a public mischief and acceptable on that basis.

I feel that though pornography is a general evil the selling of pornography behind blinds, as it were, is the reduction of a public mischief. In reference to this, may I describe to your Lordships that on occasion I have business, whatever it may be, in Victoria Street and sometimes discharge it by coming in by Underground to Victoria Station. Going through the little arcade which leads into the debouchment of Victoria Street into Grosvenor Place there is, as you emerge, on your right-hand side a dirty book shop of considerable pretension which has always caused me great offence for many years. In anticipation of this Bill becoming law that bookshop has transformed itself so as to be in accordance with the provisions of—this Bill. I remember that on the last occasion when I had business in Victoria Street and emerged and passed this shop, I felt a great sense of relief at feeling that this public mischief had been reduced and was behind blinds.

I have consulted with my noble friend Lord Nugent and others on a number of ways in which this Bill might possibly be given a wider scope, be strenthened, be improved. But we always came to the position that what it had set out to achieve was so valuable in itself that it would be a fundamental mistake to jeopardise the passage of the Bill through Parliament by trying to improve it. We felt that the better could be the enemy of the good, particularly in this context.

Nevertheless, there is still a general evil, and I think that this Bill may be the first word on the subject. But I do not feel that it can be the last. I do not think we want any more Royal Commissions of Inquiry as to whether pornography is an evil or not. It is a challenge to the lawyers to find a way, and the Law Commission in fact could perhaps sit in on this and think of a way of drafting a law which would put the thing under control, on the assumption that it is a general evil and can result in a public mischief which should be reduced.

During the course of our conversations a certain point of view occurred to me which bears on Lord Mishcon's remarks about the difficulties of defining indecency versus offensiveness, and so on. We need to remember that the word "decency" etymologically refers to decentia in Latin: it is suitable; it is fitting. Of course, what is suitable and fitting is difficult to define in words. It is a matter of how you feel. But it seemed to me that if we could draft a law such that in a prosecution the judge could say to the jury, "One of the questions you can ask yourselves in coming to the decision that this was indecent is, would you yourself like to be photographed performing the actions complained of as a test of what the word "indecency" means?" I think that most people would say, "No, I certainly would not want to be photographed doing" whatever it might be, "and published with my name on it". That is a sort of challenge to the lawyers. They must not run away from this subject because it is difficult. They have to find a way past the difficulty and give general satisfaction.

There is one danger that has been put to me: that is, that the mere fact that we have reduced the public mischief in this way may lead to an expansion of the trade beyond its blinds. I feel that that is a bridge we should cross when we come to it, and in the meantime this Bill should be supported. I shall support it with everything I have.

12.46 p.m.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I must apologise for rising when I have not put my name down to speak. I had originally not intended taking part in this debate. I must also apologise to my noble friend Lord Nugent for not being here when he gave his opening speech. However, I think I am quite considerably younger than most other Members who have spoken. I am not a grandparent. I am, however, a parent with children ranging from 10 to 17. I, personally, as well as a number of my friends, are shocked by a lot of the displays that we can see around in our towns, and spreading from the towns into the villages. Not only am I and my own generation shocked, but the generation that comes after it. In other words, my children and my friends' children.

I can see no reason why the sort of displays that are proliferating at the moment, and are getting far worse, should be allowed to continue. It is not necessary to display indecent or pornographic material so that anyone can see it. It has always been possible through the ages to obtain material of this sort if you want to, but that is no reason why it should be thrust into your face and under your nose. I should like to give this Bill my best wishes and hope that it goes through speedily.

12.48 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office, (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, the House has had to wait a long time for a Bill on this subject. There have been successive efforts over the years in another place, including the Bill which was introduced by the Government of the day in 1973. The feeling of your Lordships almost entirely is one of relief that at long last a Bill has reached us, and pleasure also that the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, has been here to welcome the Bill originally introduced by the Honourable Member for Hove, Mr. Timothy Sainsbury. My noble friend Lord Nugent paid tribute to the skill with which Mr. Sainsbury has gained support for this measure in another place, and we in our turn are grateful to my noble friend for introducing the Bill today with his customary clarity.

May I make it clear from the outset that the Government believe that this Bill is a thoroughly worthwhile measure. I am glad to see that the support given to the Bill in another place has been echoed in this House. After hearing Lord Mishcon's brief but effective résumé of some of the more archaic aspects of existing legislation, at the very least it seems to me that the Bill will clarify and reform uncertain and confusing parts of our criminal law, and this in itself would be no mean achievement. But we hope and believe that it will do more than that.

I was very interested that my noble friend Lord Swinfen, who was the last noble Lord to speak, gave his support to the Bill. It seems to me that the enactment of a modern statute, expressing in clear terms Parliament's condemnation of the public display of indecent material, should have a salutary effect on the incidence of such displays. It will serve as a warning to those who might be tempted to indulge in such displays. It will give confidence and encouragement to those who are charged with enforcing the law; and it will strengthen the hand of the courts in dealing with offenders. I considered that what was important in my noble friend's speech was that he made it clear that this is something which will appeal to younger people, to younger parents, as well, and something which—I do not think that I misrepresent what my noble friend was saying—will be of importance to children.

With regard to enforcement, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, asked me—he was kind enough to warn me that he would do so—about the view which the Police Superintendents' Association and the Police Federation take of the task of enforcing the Bill. The Home Office has not received any communication from the Police Superintendents or the Police Federation on this point, and therefore we have no reason to suppose that either body foresees particular difficulty in this regard. However, I know that the police service is obviously concerned that enforcement of the provisions of the Bill should be aided in any ways that are possible, and I noticed that the noble Lord expressed particular concern that the police should be able to get at the people who are actually responsible for these displays.

The noble Lord's concern was shared by the Standing Committee in another place. The Standing Committee agreed an amendment to Clause 1(1) of the Bill in order to ensure that those who cause or permit an indecent public display should be guilty of an offence. Thus, for example, the owner of a shop who permits his premises to be used for the public display of indecent material will be liable to prosecution.

Following this morning's debate, I do not think that I need dwell on the nature of the mischief at which the Bill is directed. This has already been eloquently described by my noble friend Lord Nugent. The principle that people should be able to go about their everyday business without risk of being gratuitously affronted by the display of indecent material is so obviously right that it hardly seems to require elaboration. Similarly, the House will not need me to tell it that the principle, right as it obviously is, nevertheless is all too frequently flouted. Indeed the evidence of our own eyes, the letters which many of us receive on the subject, and the strength of support for the Bill clearly suggest that the nuisance is real, is keenly felt and is growing. In those circumstances, it is right that we should look to the criminal law to see whether we cannot ensure that the public is better protected against an unwarranted intrusion.

In saying that, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, will not think that I have simply disregarded what he said about the subjective nature of the decisions which have to be taken in putting into effect apprehension, bringing of the charge, and finally reaching decisions so far as the law is concerned. Some Members of your Lordships' House might have taken issue with the noble Lord's use of the word "subjective" and might have substituted the word "objective", because that is the way in which we all believe, and hope, our criminal law in this country works. None the less, I say that I listened to what the noble Lord had to say; yet I still believe it right that we should look to the criminal law in this particular respect. That is one of the reasons why the Government are very happy that the Bill has arrived in your Lordships' House.

Having said that, I would add that I am also aware that there are in the country those who might feel that, while the Bill is welcome, it does not go far enough and that it does not tackle what they see as the real problem of the availability of pornography in our society. But in another place Mr. Sainsbury has not sought to disguise, nor to apologise for, the Bill's limited objectives. He has at all times made it clear that the Bill is concerned only with the public nuisance afforded by the display of indecent material in public places. He has emphasised, time and again, that it is not the Bill's purpose to pass moral judgment on such material, nor to prevent people from seeing it, if they choose to do so.

Thus the Bill does not attempt to tackle the wider issues of the availability and sale of pornography. I believe that, had the Bill attempted that task, it would probably have foundered on the rocks long before it reached your Lordships' House. I suspect that even if there were a consensus on the general approach to the wider issues of availability and sale, substantial differences on the practical issues of enforcement and control would remain. Therefore, in the Government's view my honourable friend the Member for Hove has been extremely wise to confine the Bill's objectives to a matter on which there is widespread agreement and in respect of which there is accordingly hope of making some progress.

That there is a deep divergence of views on the more fundamental questions in the field of indecent and obscene publications has been brought home forcefully to the Government by the reactions which we have received to the recommendations of the Williams' Committee, and I feel that I owe it to my noble friend Lord Nugent briefly to say a few words, a little more widely, in response to the rather wider words that he included towards the end of his speech.

As your Lordships will be aware, the Government initiated some wide-ranging consultations following the report of the Williams Committee on obscenity and film censorship. As my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made plain, the committee's recommendations clearly met with a very mixed response; and I think it a fair summary, too, of the valuable debate that we had in this House in January of last year to say that again there were expressed different views.

There is no clear support for the general scheme proposed by the Williams Committee. Equally, however, there is a great diversity of views about the form that any general legislation might take, if it were to be on lines different from those recommended by the committee. My noble friend Lord Nugent asked me a direct question about the possibility of a debate in another place on the Williams Report. Of course, that is a matter for another place, but during the Report stage of this Bill in another place my honourable friend the Minister of State at the Home Office, Mr. Mayhew, indicated that the Government would be greatly helped in their consideration of the subject by a debate on the Williams Report, which we have had the good fortune already to have had in your Lordships' House.

The view of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is that in this notoriously difficult field, pending the expression of views in another place, there is simply an insufficient measure of agreement at present to make comprehensive legislation a practical proposition. If your Lordships will forgive me for saying so, perhaps that point was best shown in today's debate when I heard the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, inviting the Government to enter the fray feet first, and my noble friend Lord de Clifford encouraging the Government to dive in head first.

My right honourable friend has said that while he is prepared to consider the possibility of legislation in this Parliament, he sees at present no early prospect of general Government legislation on the matters considered by the Williams Committee. I realise that this situation is disappointing to those, including my noble friend, who are anxious to see early legislation in this field. But it is against that background that we must consider the Bill that is before us today.

I should like briefly to say a few words about two points that have been mentioned during the debates. The first relates to the use of the term "indecent", and I agree with my noble friend Lord Nugent and other noble Lords that it is right to stick to the use of this term in the Bill. The Government's view, strengthened by the debates in another place, is that it would be a profound mistake to substitute some other term for "indecent" or to attempt to define it. The test of indecency is one which the courts are used to applying and the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, reminded us that it was being used only three years ago in legislation.

I agree that it is not possible to give a definitive interpretation of the term, but this, I suggest, is a very good reason for not attempting to do so in statute. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, drew our attention to the Williams Committee's rejection of the term "indecent" and to the definition which they proposed for a class of "restricted" material. But, as noble Lords will remember, the Williams Committee's definition served quite a different purpose, being concerned principally with the circumstances in which certain offensive pictorial material could be offered for sale. I think it would be unwise to assume that it would serve equally well as the test to be applied in respect solely of the display of material in public places. Moreover, the purpose of this Bill is not to introduce legislation based on fresh principles but to reform and clarify the existing legislation. In these circumstances, the Government remain firmly convinced that it is sensible to retain the simple test of indecency.

The other point is the exemption in Clause 1(3)(b) for displays which are visible only from within shops which post warning notices outside and permit only adults to enter. As noble Lords will be aware, this provision provoked some controversy during the later stages of the Bill in another place and my noble friend Lord Nugent referred to the objection that the provision may seem to accord some form of official recognition and sanction of sex shops since the latter will, in practice, be the only sort of shop to which it will apply. The Government, as my honourable friend the Minister of State made clear in another place, understand this objection and, indeed, the objection to sex shops in general. But we do not think it can be disputed that the provision is wholly in keeping with the limited objective of the Bill, which is to prevent such material from being obtruded upon the public while not preventing those who choose to see it from doing so.

The Government, as I have said, understand the objection to the proliferation of sex shops and, in particular, the lack of any effective means of controlling their number and location. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary, as noble Lords may be aware, has recently expressed his support in principle for a proposal made by the Greater London Council to introduce a scheme in Greater London to license such establishments. This was also referred to by my noble friend Lord Nugent. But I should like to add that that proposal from the GLC was warmly supported also by the Westminster City Council and by residents' groups and others, and, I understand, especially by those people living in Soho who are concerned about the spread of these establishments. I am sure that this concern will continue to make itself felt.

As to the possibility of the introduction of such a scheme on a wider scale, at this stage my right honourable friend's view is that it would be sensible, before contemplating such wider legislation, to assess the effectiveness of the proposal for London. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Nugent will listen attentively to the views which have been expressed in the course of this debate, and the Government, for their part, will continue to offer any assistance which is necessary to ensure the Bill's safe passage.

Viscount Barrington

My Lords, in connection with one point that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, made, may I make one suggestion. The word "indecent" is a very important one in this Bill, as distinct from "obscene". The difference is that an action can be perfectly decent in one set of circumstances and indecent in another. It is not indecent to take off one's clothes before getting into the bath if one is alone, but it would be indecent to take them off before making a speech in your Lordships' House. The difference with "obscene" is complete because, if we may take something which we would all agree is obscene, sexual satisfaction from torturing a cat or a bird or a human being would not cease to be obscene if it were done privately; it would, if anything, be more obscene. Therefore, as this is a Bill about indecency, that word is vital to it, and I should like to join with everyone else in expressing support for its use.

1.5 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, it only remains for me to thank noble Lords who took part in this debate for making it a worthwhile and interesting occasion. I should like to start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for his very helpful speech and I am very sure that all noble Lords were particularly interested to hear his precedent of membership of the Wolfenden Committee and the Street Offences Act—which was a very effective Act in my opinion to deal with this difficult problem of prostitution, forever with us but at least it does not now offend those who do not wish to take part in it.

With regard to the point made by the noble Lord on television and, interestingly, made also by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, expressing anxiety and saying that television authorities should take note of the anxieties of Parliament, we have extracted from the Home Secretary, through the mouthpiece of my noble friend Lord Belstead, the undertaking that the chairmen of the two authorities, the BBC and IBA, shall in their annual reports record the complaints that they have received during the past year and what they have done with them, the nature of the complaints and what action they have taken.

This, I suggest, will give us a chance, when we pick up the reports in late summer, to see what complaints they have had in this field—and I am sure that they have had a good many—and what they have done about it, to see whether they have taken any action to try to check this downward slide which is causing fearful concern. We have a chance to raise a debate here and express our feeling about it, which, I do not doubt, will be very effective. This is something that I hope noble Lords will join with me in taking part in.

I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, that I was interested in his speech and I shall read it again. I did not agree with everything that he said, but he would be surprised if I had done so. But I am sure that he will have listened to my noble friend Lord Swinfen, who has a teenage son and daughter, when he said that they themselves, the youngsters, dislike these displays. This is something on which I think, although we may be in the "grandad" and even "great-grandad" phase ourselves, we can have a useful view. I say to the noble Lord, in his talk about the liberation of thought and the young wanting to live and be happy, that he knows as well as I do that the path of permissiveness and promiscuity is not the path to happiness. We have only to look at the broken marriages and the children growing up from them. This is the path to unhappiness and failure in life. We have a duty to try to establish standards where we can and to try to check things where we see them doing damage.

I believe that this little Bill will take a small step in that way. I thank my noble friend Lord Belstead for his reply. I confess to being disappointed that he was not able to be a little more forthcoming on the subject of general legislation—and I also confess that I was not altogether surprised at that. I thank him for his welcome to the Bill. I know he will be giving me his valuable support at the Committee stage.

On the subject of the law generally, I agree there is no general consensus. However, I believe the Government have some obligation to make a bit of an effort to try to get a consensus—to give something of a lead on what they think might be done—and that means that a debate in the other place, with the Government giving a bit of a lead, is an obligation which falls on the shoulders of the Government. I hope my noble friend will take that message back to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, with all the other burdens on his shoulders; that this is something he should take on as well. In my view there is a growing danger to the community and unless the Government do something about it, nobody else can. I conclude by giving my warm thanks to noble Lords on all sides for making this an interesting debate and ask that the Bill be now given a Second Reading.

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