HL Deb 07 May 1999 vol 600 cc944-9

1.16 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee. —(The Earl of Halsbury.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Murton of Lindisfarne) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Offences]:

The Earl of Halsbury moved Amendment No.1:

Page 2, line 10, leave out ("is") and insert ("shall be")

The noble Earl said: All the amendments put forward for Committee stage of the Bill are mine. They are tabled in response to points made at Second Reading or in conversation with my noble friends.

I note that on the Marshalled List the amendments are grouped together. Perhaps I may speak to them together. That will enable me to make only one speech; and we may possibly pass them en bloc if that is in order.

The first amendment arose in conversation with my noble friend Lord Renton. I am sorry that he is not in his place. He said that his only comment would be to say "Hear, hear". I agree with him that the use of the future rather than the present case of the verb is to be preferred.

Amendment No.2 is in response to some gentle teasing by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn. He said that whereas I had provided for laboratories, and so on, and had given them emancipation from the restrictions in the Bill, I had done nothing for museums and galleries. His point carried weight and therefore I drafted Amendment No.2, which gives effect to that.

According to The Times on Wednesday, there will be a, £ 1.8m glimpse of sex life in Nero's Empire", on exhibition. Unless something is done about it, the museum can do what it often does, which is to make replicas and sell them to the public. Therefore, the restrictions that I seek to make on showing such items to children and young persons is fully justified.

Amendment No.3 is tabled in response to someone who said that, on the principles of sex equality, as I had included nymphomania, I should include the male equivalent. He did not know what the name was and I replied, "It is satyriasis". I have included that in the list of forbiddens. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The Government's view was made clear by my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn at Second Reading. I wish to say a brief word about Amendment No.2 because an issue of public policy is involved. The effect of the amendment would be to exempt museums and exhibitions from the demands of the proposed legislation, but only if the building concerned had facilities for segregating the viewing or study by adults, young persons and children. The amendment does not elucidate the phrase, "adults, young persons and children"; nor does it indicate what each of the parties may see. The implication is that a group of adults, young people and children could not see an exhibition together, even as a family.

I understand that the aim of the amendment may be to protect young people from seeing potentially harmful material held in public or private collections, but parents are clearly in the best position to determine what is suitable for their children in these circumstances. The amendment actively prevents them carrying out such a role.

A further effect of the amendment would be to prevent people borrowing books from libraries. It does not define what is meant by "relevant books" and the consequence is that it could prohibit people from borrowing any book. Surely the extent of the restrictions which would be imposed on our cultural life by these proposals is unacceptable. I am sorry to say that the Government's opposition to the Bill is not diminished by these amendments.

The Earl of Halsbury

The remedy is in the hands of the Government. They can move an amendment of their own on Report. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, made substantially the same speech as we have heard from the Minister today. However, the Government did nothing about it. Therefore, I must take the opinion of the House and press the matter to a Division.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Perhaps I did not make myself clear. This is a Private Member's Bill. We have expressed our opposition to the Bill and to the amendments, but we shall not oppose them. If the noble Earl puts the matter to the Committee, it will not be opposed.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Earl of Halsbury moved Amendment No.2:

Page 2, line 18, at end insert— ("( ) This Act shall not apply to museums, galleries, exhibitions or libraries funded in whole or in part by public or charitable funds or benefactions for the preservation of antiquities, literature or the furtherance of education provided that—

  1. (a) there are facilities for segregating the viewing or study by adults, young persons and children;
  2. (b) the relevant books may be studied in situ but not borrowed; and
  3. (c) replicas or photographs for sale or free shall nor be obscene as here defined. ")

The noble Earl said

I beg to move.

The Earl of Harrowby

I cannot subscribe to Amendment No.2. I have no idea what attitude my noble friends on this side of the Committee will take, but I am totally opposed to it because of its implications. What it leaves out is totally unacceptable. I regret to say that the Bill is, first, ill timed and, secondly, with due deference to the noble Earl, not a matter for a Private Member's Bill.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I understand what the noble Earl says, but I hope that he will follow the Government's example and, although he disagrees with the amendment, I hope that he will not seek to oppose it in a Private Member's Bill.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I have been asked for the opinion of the Opposition Front Bench, but I express only a personal view. In the context of the whole Bill, such a subsection is desirable. The Minister suggested improvements which could be made to the wording of the new subsection, although I realise that he is against the Bill.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I should like to put the record straight. I did not suggest improvements; I criticised the amendment. However, I and the Government believe that the Bill is incapable of amendment to make it acceptable. I did not suggest particular improvements to the amendment.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

As regards Amendment No.2, the Minister denied suggesting improvements. He seemed to make a constructive criticism—which I described as "improvements"—which would enable us to consider improvements.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 2, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 3 [Repeal]:

On Question, Whether Clause 3 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My excuse for intervening is that, admittedly long ago, I was the Home Office representative on the Select Committee whose report lead to the 1959 Act. However, by the time the Act was being considered I was no longer Home Office Minister. I should like to comment briefly on that provision, which my noble friend intends to be substituted by Clause 2 (4).

Section 4 of the 1959 Act was a useful measure of liberalisation. It charged the court—in effect, the jury—with weighing two considerations, one against the other. They were of a different nature, and therefore it was not easy to do it and the matter went wrong for many years.

The philosophy was that, on the one hand, obscene publications could do considerable harm. Anyone who heard the speeches of my noble friends Lord Northbourne and Lord Halsbury could have little doubt that there was substance in that. On the other hand, certain publications served the interests of art, literature, science and so on. Therefore, the court was charged with weighing the potential harm against the potential benefit. That went wrong for a number of years because it was misinterpreted. In particular, there was one expert witness who appeared in case after case and who used to say, "Allegedly obscene publications are of benefit to my client. It is said that they encourage masturbation. I encourage my patients to masturbate because it releases tension, as does the consumption of obscene publications". As a result, as your Lordships can see, the balance with which the court was charged in Section 4 was completely obviated. Indeed, the question turned on whether the article was obscene in the sense of doing harm.

Although that was misinterpreted for a long time, in the end an appellate court restored the law to what was intended in 1959. I believe that it would be a pity to get rid of Section 4 of the 1959 Act because, although deprecating obscene publications as potentially harmful, it recognises that in certain circumstances their benefit to literature, art or science can be promoted. Therefore, I ask my noble friend to reconsider that matter. It requires consideration in the light of Clause 2 subsection (4).

1.30 p.m.

Lord Annan

I am very much in accord with what my noble and learned kinsman, Lord Simon, has said. I do not want to go back to the Act of 1959. I note what I said at Second Reading and I hasten to say that I shall not repeat it in full. Following the passage of the 1959 Act a commission was set up under the chairmanship of Professor Bernard Williams and it reported on this extremely complicated business. It is a complex matter and if your Lordships read the report, you will see why. I shall say no more, except to say that I am sorry, although I never had high hopes that the noble Earl would amend this Bill in the light of that report. That is why I cannot possibly agree with the amendment, although I hasten to say that I have no intention of opposing it.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

Professor Bernard Williams' report was debated in your Lordships' House. It was a marvellous, clearly written report, as one would expect from his chairmanship. However, when it was subject to analysis and scrutiny in your Lordships' House, virtually nothing was left of it. In particular, there was a highly cogent speech by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, and that report sank without trace, I thought for good, until my noble friend resuscitated it at Second Reading.

As my noble friend has said, this is a complicated matter and this will probably not be the last word on it, but I do not believe that we should take the Williams report as our jumping-off point. We should certainly consider it in the light of the debate in Committee.

The Earl of Halsbury

I was told that one could not draft a Bill like this, but I have proved that it is possible. I have tried to simplify things. What sort of a world do we live in? I have here a banner headline from last week's edition of the Sunday Times: W. H. Smith puts lesbian porn on sale". I note what has been said and I shall reconsider this matter on Report. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Schedule [Activities relevant to the definition of obscenity]:

The Earl of Halsbury moved Amendment No.3:

Page 3, line 35, at end insert— ("Satyriasis. ")

The noble Earl said

I beg to move.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

I thought I was fairly hard-boiled in such matters, but I confess that I did not understand all the terms that my noble friend set out in the schedule. I believe that he derived them from careful study in the library of the Royal Society of Psychiatrists.

Perhaps I should have made this suggestion in relation to Clause I. The Bill substitutes a number of particular matters for the general definition of "obscenity" in the 1959 Act. Perhaps my noble friend will consider, before the next stage, making Clause 1 and the schedule subject, without prejudice, to the definition in the 1959 Act.

Lord Wilberforce

With apologies to my noble kinsman's wish to add to the schedule, I suggest that the form in which he puts Amendment No.3 is slightly confusing. He adds this word, which I cannot pronounce and the meaning of which I do not know, after the end of line 35. I believe that he is seeking to insert it after line 35, as line 36, with the others consequently renumbered. I do not believe that my noble kinsman wants the word added to the end of line 35.

The Earl of Halsbury

I have listened to everything that has been said. I shall reconsider the matter on Report.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule, as amended, agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported to the House with amendments.