HL Deb 15 April 1986 vol 473 cc535-7
Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take in the light of the judgment of the European Court overturning the decision of Customs and Excise to ban the entry of goods imported by Conegate Ltd. from Germany as indecent or obscene under the Customs Consolidation Act 1876.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Lord Young of Graffham)

My Lords, the Government are still considering the implications of this judgment, which was delivered on 11th March.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, which does not take us very much further. Is he aware that the Customs and Excise, by means of the 1876 Act, protects us against the flood of pornography which pours around the world in the international trade? Is he also aware that the decision of the European Court, which disregarded the moral aspects of the matter in favour of the technicality, cast doubt on the ethics of that court? Is my noble friend further aware that by amending the Obscene Publications Act 1959 by extending the definition of an article he could close the loophole on which the European Court relied and so restore the effect of the Act? Will he consider that point?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I should like to assure my noble friend that my understanding of the European Court judgment was simply that that which it was permissible to sell in the country of origin could not be made part of a ban on importation. But it is a matter which we are considering. I hope before very much longer we shall have a view.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, does the judgment mean that we are now likely to be flooded with inflatable rubber sex dolls and the vacuum flasks that we read about in the report of the court? Will the noble Lord confirm whether it is a fact that under existing law there is nothing to prevent UK manufacturers producing and marketing these products? This is at the heart of the problem. Will he tell us whether it is the Government's intention to introduce new legislation or to amend existing legislation, as was suggested—which is perhaps not 110 years out of date—in order to ensure that we are not flooded in the way that the Customs and Excise found so offensive to public morality? In the circumstances would it help your Lordships to have a better idea of what it is all about if the Minister were prepared to put samples in the Library?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I may, alas, disappoint someone in your Lordships' House by saying that I cannot accede to the last request. At the moment it is permissible to manufacture and sell these objects within the United Kingdom. I do not think that the relaxation of the ban on importation will make any difference to the present position. However, it is a matter which is a cause for concern. We are looking at the situation and I hope before much longer we shall make a decision.

Lord Denning

My Lords, does not Section 42 of the Customs Consolidation Act 1876 expressly prohibit the importation of indecent or obscene articles? Were not the courts of this country absolutely justified in holding that these inflatable dolls were indecent and obscene and therefore perfectly justified in holding and finding them to be forfeited as against our statute? This point is important. Was not the European Court of Justice completely wrong in holding that our legislation was invalid? Is it not perfectly legitimate for this Government, by Order in Council or by regulation under Section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972, to deal with the matter by holding that our statute is perfectly valid and enforceable in our courts and that in this respect our courts need not regard the decision of the European Court?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I was at one time but a humble solicitor and it does not fall to me to disagree with the noble and learned Lord or with the European Court. But I believe that the essence of the decision was simply that there could not be a ban by our courts on importation of that which it was permissible to sell in this country. However, we are considering the matter, and I hope that we shall come back with a decision shortly. It is difficult for me to say any more than this and I hope that all in your Lordships' House will understand.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware with what pleasure I rise to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, in his plea that we should deny and denounce courts and laws with which we disagree?

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that hard porn is a threat to family life and, if the obligation of defence of the realm is fundamental to the Government, defence of family life is even more fundamental?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, yes, but goods which are obscene will be covered by the Obscene Publications Act and will continue to be seized at import. We are talking about a different matter entirely; that is, a Customs test of goods called indecent. The decision was merely on the ban on indecent goods which are permitted to be sold within the United Kingdom and which could not be barred by Customs, or so the European Court held.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, is this not a case which should notably be left to local option? Is it not true that if Iran was part of the EC it would be scandalised by many matters which we permit, whereas if we became subject to its laws we should also be scandalised? Is this not a matter in which we should each be allowed our own opinions? Cannot the EC be arranged so that matters on which local opinions are extremely strong are left to us and not to others?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I hear everything that the noble Viscount says. All I can say is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to sell such objects on a Sunday!

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, will my noble friend be good enough to let me know when he is ready to give us the fruits of his consideration so that I may put down a further Question to hear, I hope, a helpful answer?

Lord Young of Graffham

Yes, my Lords, but I would rely on your Lordships to accept that this is a responsibility of Customs and Excise for whom I gladly answer in your Lordships' House. It is not my primary responsibility, but I shall speak to my right honourable friend and I shall notify him.

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