HL Deb 18 June 1984 vol 453 cc86-94

7.46 p.m.

Further considered on Report.

Clause 21 [Forfeiture.]

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 48: Page 15, line 35, at end insert ("and destroyed").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the House will be glad to know that I do not intend to complicate matters further. I sincerely hope that we can complete the Report stage of this Bill within the next 45 minutes or an hour. I have certainly no intention of having it further considered later on tonight.

In moving Amendment No. 48, however, perhaps I may for the convenience of the House indicate what my plans are. I do not propose to move Amendment No. 50, which is an amendment of substance. I will defer that to the Third Reading where I think it is more appropriate because it proposes to limit the tenure of the Bill. I think it is better taken then than now, especially as I attach quite a lot of importance to it. The next thing is that I do not have to do anything with Amendment No. 51 because that was dealt with previously, and the schedule has already been printed in the Official Report, so I will take any guidance that is available as to how to deal with that one.

So I come back to the only amendment for which I shall be responsible in this debate; Amendment No. 48, which is really exploratory. I could not be more benign upon it than I am at this moment. It is however a matter of some importance. Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 has provision for obscene publications to be seized and held by the police without necessarily being the subject of any charge under that Act, but submitted for the consideration of a court as to whether the material seized should be forfeited. So there can be a forfeiture of alleged obscene material which is not the subject of a charge, as well as material seized that could be or would be the subject of a charge. As I understand it, there is no such provision in this Bill.

Clause 21 states: Where a person is convicted of any offence under this Act, a court may order any video recording—

  1. (a) produced to the court, and
  2. (b) shown to the satisfaction of the court to relate to the offence, to be forfeited".
That suggests to me that only if there is a conviction under this Bill would an order be made for forfeiture of the recordings held by the police. In that respect this Bill differs from the main substance of the Obscene Publications Act to which I have referred. If that is clear then the question I ask is: what happens to them when they are forfeited? I have not been able to do all the research necessary to find out what happens to things that are forfeited under the order of a court. I presume that they are disposed of in some appropriate manner, which usually would be destruction. But there are aspects of this material which I think contain distinctive potentialities for difficulty. One is that they are all standard in size, in shape. They are easily put in the pocket; they have an acknowledged exchange value of roughly the same amount; they are almost currency in a world of their own.

Some people will allege that those responsible for affairs at times cannot resist anything except temptation, and I am anxious to be satisfied that the videos that are forfeited do not get into the wrong hands. I am not going to be associated with a lot of wanton criticisms of the police, reflecting upon their integrity and so on, but I hear far too much about what is going on at the present moment to feel comfortable. One wonders what actually happens to videos that are forfeited, apparently without any order of the court as to what is to happen to them. That may be another of the matters that are more relevant to the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill than to this one. But here we are; we are dealing in this Bill with a special material and, as I say, it can be of some special importance.

There is the risk of planted evidence. There is the problem of how long a person who has been raided has to wait before he gets a list of what has been taken, so that he can check it against his stock or his possessions in order to feel satisfied that it is a true and correct list. There is the question of the length of time these things are retained, and all the rest of it. I think that in regard to this material, when the court has decided that it should be forfeited, and when all the appropriate periods of time have expired during which an appeal might he lodged, then the finality of the matter should be that the material is destroyed.

I omitted to mention one thing; that is, of course, that this prohibited material is easily reproduced, and that adds to the danger, because copies can be made quite easily. I just do not know. All I can say is that, having served with some noble friends in this House on the Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life, we were very concerned indeed regarding what we heard about the vice squad in London and elsewhere. There was a good clean-up operation carried out at that time. I have often said— and I firmly believe it— that pornography has corrupted more police than it has citizens; and that is a danger we have to guard against. If the stuff is destroyed, that does at least minimise the risk of abuse.

That is really my case. I am addressing myself to the Minister because, though I do not care who replies, with great respect, I should have thought that the Minister would know more about this than would the noble Lord, Lord Nugent. After all, he cannot be an expert on everything in this Bill, much as I respect his capacity for research into and exposition of the obscurities of the Bill: but there we are.

I hope I shall be content to receive an answer about the treatment of forfeited material under this Bill, or under any other enactment, which will enable me to be satisfied that goods forfeited are not put into circulation and sold on the side, and that there is no other misuse of material of this kind. I beg to move.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, while I do not claim to be an expert on this, or indeed any, aspect of the Bill— though I am bound to say that during the course of its passage I am becoming much better informed— I think I know enough about this particular problem to be able to answer the noble Lord. First, I would say that I am 100 per cent. with him, for once, that the right thing to do with these tapes is to destroy them. I am glad to be able to assure him that the power already exists in Section 140 of the Magistrates' Court Act 1980, which requires that upon a conviction any article forfeited shall be sold or otherwise disposed of as the court may direct.

One thing we can be quite sure of is that they would not be selling this material, and therefore I would think in most circumstances the court would order it to be destroyed. So the powers are available, and it is not necessary to amend the Bill in this respect in order to ensure the very splendid end which the noble Lord requires. I hope that he will feel completely reassured by that answer.

Lord Monson

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, is it not the case that the powers are not compulsory but are optional?

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, that is so. I think it is desirable for them to be optional because one does not know for how long material is to be held, and in what circumstances. As long as the powers are there, I think we can leave it with some confidence to the courts to see that destruction follows where appropriate.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords. I want to be satisfied about that reply. Perhaps the noble Lord will answer just one question. The powers are there. Does this mean that if the powers are not exercised, then forfeited material remains, as it were, in the air? Is there a finality to it, or has there to be a positive decision on destruction? That is the point.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, may I ask him to be a little more explicit as to what would be the disadvantage of accepting these two words?

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, perhaps I may make a brief reference to the discretionary matter. I think the amendment is ill drawn, because in Clause 21, on page 15, at line 31, it says only that the court "may". So it is a discretionary clause, and even if we added the words of the amendment, it would still not make it other than discretionary. So although I also have sympathy with the tenor of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, the amendment he suggests would not in fact strengthen the position all that much, because we are told that the court "may" order, not that the court "shall" order.

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

My Lords, perhaps it may be best if I reply to this point because the conventions of the Report stage suggest that my noble friend should not longer be drawn into the fray. May I say to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, first of all that the right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. His own amendment is just as permissive as the Bill, as it now stands. However, may I address myself to the point he intended to make; namely, that it should not be permissive. The fact is that the power exists in law for the court to dispose of these undesirable objects by either destruction or other means. I should say that the power to dispose of them otherwise exists in another Act which, as my noble friend says, is the Magistrates' Court Act 1980, which applies to anything which the magistrates may confiscate, if that is the term. If we put in a requirement that they should so do in this Bill, I am given to understand that it would cast doubt on other legislation where the power remains permissive. The assumption is I think warranted that the courts, which have this material under their direct control, will not allow it either to gather dust or to be disseminated among the public for the profit of the employees of the court.

I hope the noble Lord will be satisfied with my explanation, and that the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, will accept that to put this amendment into this Bill would cast doubt on the vires, or the correctness, of other Acts already on the statute book.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the last thing in the world I want to do is to interfere with the pious intention of my noble friend Lord Houghton that this stage of the Bill should be completed during this dinner hour. But, in sheer frankness, I must rise because I do not think that the right reverend Prelate has quite got the point, nor do I believe that the Minister has.

I thought what was being suggested by my noble friend was that there was a permissive power in the court to forefeit; that if the court exercised that permissive power it was saying, "Please, at the same time, see that it is destroyed". The court would not just have the right to decide that it should be forfeited; the court would have also to say if it decided to forfeit, that it should be destroyed. If I may say so— I may be wrong, and it would not by any means be the first time— the answer to that is that there would be many occasions when the court would want to forfeit quite properly but would not want an article destroyed because further inquiries might have to be made as to the source of that article, when further inquiries might have to be made as to its distribution, and without the exhibit, as it were, those inquiries might be very difficult. That is why it is wrong to link the power to forefeit with the injunction that, if you do exercise that power, then you must destroy as well.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, surely, as my noble friend the Minister has said it is left to each individual court and each individual case. When things which are highly obnoxious have been put before me on my desk—things like long sheath knives which have done a great deal of damage to young people—I order them to be confiscated and destroyed. That is within the power of the court, and I do not think it should be written into the Bill. I do not think that that is a necessary part of it.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am sure that the matter has gone as far as is possible now, and I am as content as one can be in this difficult problem. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

Clause 23 [Short title, commencement and extent]:

8.3 p.m.

Lord Monson moved Amendment No. 49: Page 16, line 32, after ("Recordings") insert ("(Regulation)").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the effect of this amendment would be to change the Short Title of the Bill so that it read Video Recordings (Regulation) Bill. I am certain that I need not emphasise that this is in no sense a wrecking amendment, nor will it in any way weaken the Bill if it is accepted. Your Lordships may recall that at Committee stage I moved an amendment, with the able assistance of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, to change the Title of the Bill so that it would read Video Recordings Censorship Bill. That amendment was opposed by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and others, chiefly on the grounds that there was no censorship involved in this Bill. Frankly, I found that assertion difficult, indeed impossible, to accept. However, I took the point, which was well made by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that censorship forms only a part of what this Bill does and that only a minority of videos submitted for classification will be banned outright or required to have bits snipped out of them, so naturally we withdrew the amendment.

The same objection can hardly be made to this amendment. I have lost count of the number of times that the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, and others have said that the purpose of this Bill is to regulate the sale and hire of video recordings. Indeed, the Daily Telegraph today revealed that distributors of old Walt Disney films like Donald Duck will have to pay between £400 and £600 to get a classification for their films, even if they swear on oath that the films have not been tampered with since they were first made 30 or 40 years ago, upon pain of a fine of up to £20,000. Incidentally, the Long Title of the Bill, which is an unusually short Long Title, describes it as: An act to make provision for regulating the distribution of video recordings and for connected purposes".

What would the existing cryptic Short Title, Video Recordings Bill (or, as it will be, Video Recordings Act), mean to the average individual who has not been following these debates in the same way as your Lordships have, either now or even more so in two, three, four or five years' time? Somebody coming across the existing Title for the first time might easily suppose that it refers to video copyright; to the fire resistance qualities, or the absence of fire resistance qualities, of the cassettes in which the recordings are contained; to whether such cassettes have jagged edges which might cut children's hands; to resale price maintenance or the abolition of resale price maintenance where video recordings are concerned; or to any number of other things.

In Committee, I suggested that if at some future date the popular press became agitated about what they might well term "folio nasties", and if, in consequence, some latter-day Lord Nugent of Guildford were to introduce a Bill to control the sale and hire of explicit or violent material featuring the printed word, it is inconceivable that he would entitle it the Books and Magazines Bill, or, I might now add, the Books, Periodicals and Posters Bill. Needless to say, I was not contradicted, for obvious reasons.

I submit that in a participatory democracy the Short Title of an Act of Parliament should never be vague or ambiguous. Members of the legal profession often complain to me about the difficulty of finding their way through the mass of legislation which has cascaded out of the Palace of Westminster in recent years, but it is not only lawyers that we should be concerned about. Any member of the public, whatever his level of education, should be able to walk into a public library at any time in the future and say, "I should like to see that law about video nasties which they brought in three or four years ago", and the librarian should be able to run her finger down a list of self-explanatory titles and pick out the right one with the minimum of fuss and bother.

The sponsors of this Bill are obviously proud of it and what it sets out to do. In consequence, they should not wish its light to be hidden under a bushel. If the noble Lord is in two minds about accepting this amendment, may I suggest to him that another place ought at least to be allowed to have a look at it? If they were then to reject it, there would be absolutely no question of your Lordships insisting upon it. My Lords, I beg to move.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, as the noble Lord rightly said, this is a subject which we have debated before at Committee stage, when we had an interesting debate on the point as to whether the word "censorship" should be introduced into the Short Title. I recollect, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, has said, that we had a difference of opinion. but he accepted the point then that "censorship" was inappropriate because it would apply to only a very small part of the total material. But we had quite a range over the whole subject: and I recollect the intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, as well. But the contribution which impressed me most was from the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, who has played such a splendid part in these debates, when he said: This is the Short Title of a Bill of Parliament. It is not suggested that any Short Title encompasses all the things that a Bill is supposed to do. What the Short Title does is to give an indication of what the Bill is about, and this Bill is about video recordings. Therefore, it is an extremely accurate and uncontroversial title".—[Official Report; 18/5/84; col. 1658.] Pretty well everything else that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, has said would be relevant if there were other video Bills. But there are not. This is the only one, so anyone who is interested in video legislation either now or in the future has only got to look at the alphabetical index for "V" to find "video", and they will come straight upon it. So it really is a completely adequate title to describe what the Bill is about so that anybody who wishes to know can find it without any difficulty.

It is a mistake to add words to any Short Title. This goes for all the parliamentary Bills which I have seen during the past 30 to 40 years. The shorter the title the better. It is convenient for everybody, so long as it adequately describes what the Bill is about. Other explanatory words are needed only when there are other Bills on the same subject. I am sure it is better parliamentary practice not to put further words of any kind into the Short Title of the Bill. It is a mistake to add anything to the Short Title of a Bill that is not absolutely essential. Therefore I hope that the noble Lord. Lord Monson, and the noble Lord. Lord Houghton of Sowerby, who have put their names to this amendment will withdraw it. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, with his very long parliamentary experience, will be as aware as I am that the principle which I am enunciating is the basic principle for all short titles. They are kept as short as they can be. Extra words are needed only when there are other Bills on the same subject. I hope that the noble Lord will be convinced by these arguments.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, I listened to the brief debate at the Committee stage on the earlier amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, when he sought to insert the word "censorship" into the Long Title. I understood the arguments against it. Therefore I thought the noble Lord was right to withdraw the amendment. Having studied this amendment— which I did most carefully before I came here— I wondered whether this amendment was necessary: but having heard the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, I am bound to say that I think perhaps it is. I find it difficult to understand why he should be so suspicious of the mere interpolation of this single word which seeks to demonstrate more clearly precisely what it is that the Bill seeks to do. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has said that this is the only Video Bill and that there will never be another Video Bill.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I said nothing of the kind. I said that if there is another Video Bill, that will be the time to add additional words, if they are needed, to describe the nature of it. However, when there is only one Bill of this kind, the word "video" is sufficient to describe it.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords. I am most grateful to the noble Lord. I withdraw what I said if I misunderstood him. However, I understood the noble Lord to say that at the moment it is unnecessary to have this amendment because there is no other Video Bill. I believe it is absolutely certain, as sure as night follows day, that there will have to be other Bills. There will have to be another Bill to deal with the copyright of video films. There will have to be another Bill dealing with the pirating of videos. As the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, said, it is quite right that when that time comes we can put in words and have legislation to alter the Title of the Bill or, indeed, the other Bill. But since this simple word which the noble Lord, Lord Monson, seeks to insert merely makes clear what is the purpose of the Bill, I find it very difficult to understand why the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, should oppose it.

On the last occasion when this matter was discussed it was pointed out that it would be inappropriate to insert the word "censorship" because there would be many occasions on which video recordings would be regulated without in any true sense being censored. If the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, objects to the word "regulation" being inserted, one wonders whether his intention is perhaps a little different from the mere regulating of videos. Perhaps the noble Lord does want them to be censored. I do not know. I find it difficult to understand why he does not accept this very simple amendment which makes the Short Title of the Bill infinitely clearer than it would otherwise be. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, asked the noble Lords, Lord Monson and Lord Houghton of Sowerby, to withdraw the amendment. I hope they will not.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Winstanley and Lord Monson, and my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby, are reasonable men. Although the corpse of Caesar is not before us, may I make it clear that they are also honourable men. I wonder whether I can answer the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, in a sentence or two. It would not be an accurate description. This Bill in no way regulates video recordings. This Bill regulates the distribution of video recordings. Therefore it would be a completely inaccurate and misleading title.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, perhaps a little more research is desirable into the pedigree of titles of Bills so as to get at the truth of the matter. I started this the other day when I asked the Library if I could see the Licensing Act 1662. No one would suspect, from the title of that Act, that it was an Act for preventing the frequent abuses in printing seditious, treasonable and unlicensed books and pamphlets and for the regulating of printing and printing presses. On the basis of what the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has said, I suppose that the time to bring "books" into the Title would be if there were another licensing Act to follow the Act of 1662 that did something else with books. Then it would be the Licensing (Regulation of Books) Act.

This is a fascinating topic. I am sure that there ought to be a book about it. Then we should probably wonder why we were a little more explicit in 1955 when there was a Bill entitled Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act. The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, will also remember the Protection of Children Act 1978. In both of those cases there was a moral purpose to get into the Title: to convey to somebody that this was a good thing to do. It was not neutral. It was purposeful; it was moral; it was almost divine. But here we are hiding it all under this neutral title.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, there was nothing moral about the Protection of Children Act. The main purpose of the Bill was to safeguard the well-being of children.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, so we could go on! But I promise not to go on. My little bit of entertainment can finish here and now.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am sure that we shall view that with a certain poignant regret. I of course see the attractions which the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, sees in the amendment standing in the name of both noble Lords, in that they feel it directs the attention to something in the Bill which they regard as of paramount importance. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has very ably told your Lordships, that is not actually what the Bill is about. Therefore it would be more misleading than not to give a narrower definition.

There is another aspect. We have here the child of whom the parents are in another place. It has been christened the Video Recordings Bill and it is widely known as the Video Recordings Bill. There would be a certain discourtesy in giving it at this late stage a new name, as it were, by deed poll without discussing it with the parents, when that name is entirely misleading as to the character of the child. So I hope noble Lords will not think that my noble friend is being pernickety or splitting hairs when he asks your Lordships not to pass this apparently innocuous amendment, because in fact it would be misleading and just faintly discourteous.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, theologically, the Minister is right, because once a child is christened he is never re-christened. So I agree with the Minister.

Lord Monson

My Lords, theology apart, I think the other place should have a chance to consider our suggestion, which may not have occurred to them. I am disappointed with what the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has said. I do not believe that the Title gives a true indication of what the Bill is all about. I do not believe that members of the general public will get a true impression, either, particularly in a few years' time when, as the noble Lord. Lord Winstanley, (for whose support I am most grateful), has said, there may be many other Bills with titles involving the word "video". The noble Lord has suggested that it will make the Title clumsy to add the word "Regulation", a 10-letter word. I am sure that he cannot be seriously suggesting that it would have that effect. The noble Lord is surely carrying to unusual lengths his distaste for that which is explicit when he apparently wants a fig-leaf to mask the essential purpose of the Bill.

I have not moved this amendment in any lighthearted manner. I am strongly convinced that acceptance of the amendment would be to the public benefit in the short-term and, particularly, in the long-term. Although I do not intend to ask anybody to march through the Division Lobbies after this long afternoon that your Lordships have had, I shall adopt the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, and ask your Lordships to indicate verbally what you feel about this amendment.

On Question, amendment negatived.

[Amendments Nos. 50 and 51 not moved.]

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I understand that consideration of amendments on the Third Reading of the Rates Bill was adjourned until 8.30 p.m. Therefore, I beg to move that the House be now adjourned during pleasure until that time.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, we accept with pleasure anything which the noble Baroness moves.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.22 to 8.30 p.m.]

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