HL Deb 27 May 1999 vol 601 cc1132-4

5.30 p.m.

Read a third time.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, before moving that the Bill do now pass I should like to say a word of thanks to all those who have enabled me to bring it to this point. The brevity of these, my thanks, reflects the lateness of the hour and your Lordships' desire to get home, rather than the depth of my gratitude. I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(The Earl of Halsbury.)

The Earl of Harrowby

My Lords, I too regret keeping noble Lords from their trains and green pastures for very much longer but I find it necessary to do so. I respect entirely the views of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and understand his concerns. I respect his desire to fulfil the tryst which he told us about probably on Second Reading, or perhaps at Committee stage, but I have serious reservations about the Bill.

The noble Earl has a distinguished record in both the public and private fields. I bow to that and also to his age, although I point out that my age is only 12 per cent less than his. Nevertheless, it is desirable to place on record the fact that there must be many in this House who are extremely uncomfortable with the Bill. We all know that in a full and detailed debate it would not pass because of the many omissions that would be necessary in Clause 2. The coverage is inadequate. The subject is most complex. We also know that it will be killed before it gets half- way down the corridor.

I do not propose to divide the House. I am not a professional politician and do not know the rules of the House. I have great respect for the noble Earl, and his record demands it. Among other things, he is President of the Institute of Psychology. Perhaps the good reason for my being on my feet is that I have a not dissimilar position in the Institute of Psychiatry. Nevertheless, the Bill is very questionable. I have been privileged to be a Member of this House, although I seldom speak, for 12 years and I do not want to see its reputation downgraded in any respect. It is worrying that a Bill which is clearly non-viable in every respect, whatever one's feelings on the subject, should leave this House. Whether or not one is with the noble Earl, it would not stand up. I ask the noble Earl seriously to consider, at the end of what I hope will be a very short debate, not moving the Bill but begging leave to withdraw it.

Lord Rowallan

My Lords, I too apologise for keeping the House. I rise simply to inquire of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, how he expects the Bill to come onto the statute book, for if it succeeded in passing through the other place and became law surely the first thing that would run foul of its terms would be the Bill itself. which could not even be printed or published.

Viscount Craigavon

My Lords, I intentionally did not take part in the previous stages of the Bill, but I was present throughout the debates and listened to them. I should like to place on record, especially for those outside the House who may not know our customs—in a sense, I support the noble Earl, Lord Harrowby—that the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has benefited from the traditional courtesy and customs of this Chamber. This Bill is a Private Member's Bill and has not been seriously opposed; nor, in my view, has it even been seriously discussed. In my opinion this House has treated the Bill in the best way possible, effectively by ignoring it. As the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said at Committee stage, it is unamendable. At Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Annan, pointed out its major defects. Despite the fact that the Bill is now being allowed to pass, it is not doing so after full debate and the considered opinion of this Chamber. I hope that no one will represent the situation otherwise outside this House.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, at Second Reading I had serious doubts about the Bill. However, it pinpoints that the law of obscenity is unsatisfactory at present. I do not know exactly the best way of clarifying it. Everyone has their own views on how the law of obscenity could be clarified. I hope that the passing of the Bill will send a signal that action is needed to improve the law of obscenity. I warmly encourage the noble Earl to let the Bill pass. Its future is fairly doubtful, but it will send a necessary signal to the Government and the nation.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, although I speak from the Front Bench, I speak personally as this is not a party issue.

The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has done an important service in attempting to draft in a different way statutory limits on the grossly offensive obscene material which circulates today. The existing limits have proved ineffective and the position continues to deteriorate.

I support the noble Earl's aim. However, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, advanced important criticisms of the Bill which no one has been able to refute. The Bill is flawed and I cannot support it. At this stage I do not intend to oppose the Bill as it will not pass into law. The Bill as drafted will not do. But the problems to which it draws attention should be addressed.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I had not intended to speak. However, since other noble Lords have spoken perhaps I should say a few words from the Government Front Bench.

The House is grateful to the noble Earl for the time and commitment he has given to producing a Bill which seeks to address the difficult and sensitive subject of obscenity, an issue which has caused and continues to cause much debate. The noble Earl has made clear that he believes that the law on obscenity should be more precisely drawn and to this end has produced a schedule to his Bill containing a long and varied list of activities, some rather more demanding than others.

As the Bill currently stands, it would criminalise much that has been available in books, paintings and on film for many years. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn pointed out at Second Reading of the Bill, the Bill classifies as obscene works of art and artefacts, including works of a religious nature, which have been open for public viewing over many hundreds of years. The Bill will place considerable restraint on our freedom to enjoy and appreciate works of fine art and literature and would prevent us from deciding for ourselves whether those works of art are suitable for our children's viewing. It would also constrain debate on issues of public interest.

A curtailment of these freedoms is unacceptable—as we have just discovered, not only to the Government. I admire the noble Earl for his tireless enthusiasm on this subject, but the fundamental flaws remain. It is the Government's view that they are insurmountable. That is why we must continue to express our inability to support the Bill.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, nevertheless, I commend the Bill.

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.

House adjourned for the Spring Bank Holiday Recess at twenty-two minutes before six o'clock.