HL Deb 15 April 1991 vol 527 cc1250-2

2.40 p.m.

Earl Attlee asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in view of the increase of advertisements of an explicit pornographic nature which are appearing in many provincial and one or two national newspapers, they will take steps to ban all questionable advertisements requiring readers to telephone phone numbers with the code 0898 or similar ones should these subsequently appear.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the advertisements for all premium rate telephone services are already subject to controls. They must comply with the rules contained in the British Code of Advertising Practice which requires that all advertisements should be legal, decent, honest and truthful and should not contain any matter that is likely to cause grave or widespread offence.

This code is incorporated into the codes of practice for premium rate telephone services which are administered by the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS). ICSTIS announced in March that it intends revising the codes of practice to implement stricter controls on the advertising of such telephone services.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that Answer. However, I am not really surprised that he could not quite keep a straight face while giving it. I wonder whether the Minister or any other noble Lord had heard before of the organisation which is commonly known as ICSTIS. If they had not, how would they expect the general public to have heard of it and to contact it? Is the Minister aware that if someone phones one of these 0898 telephone numbers he is first told at great length about keeping within the law and is quoted the requirements that the Minister just mentioned? This makes the time taken on the telephone even longer—in other words, these services are making a mockery of the law. What do the Government intend to do about it?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, noble Lords will discover under the consumer advice section at the back of their telephone book the address and telephone number of Oftel and ICSTIS. It is pointed out that a free complaints line operating 24 hours a day will take down the details of any complaint and transmit it to the ICSTIS secretariat. In 1990 approximately 350 services were either terminated or amended as a result of ICSTIS investigation of complaints.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that, in addition to the pornographic element mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, which has given rise to some concern, there is also growing concern at the ever-increasing political Right-wing bias which appears in many of our national and local newspapers, some of which material would do credit to the late unlamented Dr. Goebbels?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I believe that if the noble Lord were to ring some of the telephone numbers which have been mentioned he would find that no political views would be expressed in the services.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, does my noble friend equate political bias with pornography?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I leave it to my noble friend to make a judgment on that matter.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, can the noble Viscount say whether British Telecom intends to backdate to January the increase in VAT on pornographic calls as apparently it intends to do—although it may now have given up the idea—in regard to everyone else's calls?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, that is another Question.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that this kind of activity has very much increased since privatisation? Therefore, would it not be better if those in charge of the telephone services were to attempt to improve them rather than straying into these byways?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, perhaps I should point out that ICSTIS has recently announced that it intends to revise the provisions of its code of practice so as to implement stricter controls on the advertising of premium-rate adult entertainment telephone services. That follows a review of the guidelines issued last summer to the industry which were intended to prevent the more offensive advertisements for recorded message services from appearing in publications which are widely available to all age groups. We expect the new guidelines to be published within a matter of weeks.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, if all advertisements were really legal, decent, honest and truthful, can the noble Viscount say what effect that would have on the advertising revenue of the newspapers?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, once again, I must point out that that is another Question.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, are the Government in a position to do anything about pornographic advertisements, bearing in mind that Mr. Rupert Murdoch and the Sun newspaper are the greatest supporters of the Conservative Party?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, advertising is a matter for the Advertising Standards Authority. The control of advertising, which is administered by the authority, is based upon the code of practice, which is well known.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I appreciate that we have thus far spent nearly 10 minutes on Questions, but perhaps I may ask the Minister one further question. Is he aware of the publication which appears every Sunday entitled the Sunday Sport? I have with me one full page of its advertising, but the content of the advertisements is so crude that, unfortunately, I am unable to repeat it to your Lordships.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, as I have said, ICSTIS will shortly be announcing new guidelines. I think it may be helpful if I point out that some of the proposed guidelines will certainly cover some of the points made by the noble Earl.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that some of us find this Astor-Attlee pornographic exchange most fascinating? Is he further aware that, had his grandmother asked such a question of the noble Earl's father—which she might well have done—she would probably have received an even more succinct Answer than that which the noble Viscount has been able to give today?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, for his comments.