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Commons Chamber

Volume 975: debated on Friday 7 December 1979

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House Of Commons

Friday 7 December 1979

The House met at Eleven o'clock


[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]


With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on Rhodesia.

I told the House on 5 December that we were making plans to send a Governor to Salisbury in the next few days. I can now inform the House that Her Majesty the Queen has been pleased to approve the appointment of my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Soames as her Governor of Rhodesia during the interim period. Lord Soames will arrive in Salisbury in the course of next week. In view of the exacting nature of the tasks which the Governor will have to perform during this period, the Government thought it right to recommend the appointment of a senior member of the Cabinet with wide ministerial experience.

The Deputy Governor will be Sir Antony Duff, deputy to the Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Government are thus demonstrating the great importance that they attach to the fulfilment of their responsibility to provide the conditions in which free and fair elections can be held as the means of bringing Rhodesia to independence on the basis of genuine majority rule. When the Governor arrives in Salisbury and his authority is accepted, Rhodesia will return to legality.

This is an important statement. We all know that a task of unique difficulty awaits the Governor in Salisbury, because his arrival there marks the return to legality after 15 years of rebellion.

I assume, and I should be grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's confirmation, that the Government are now wholly confident that the agreed ceasefire will be formally announced before the Governor departs. I also assume that the Govern- ment made at least informal soundings of the interested parties before announcing the appointment of Lord Soames. In making their decision, I again assume that, personal qualities apart—we know of the varied and wide experience of Lord Soames—it is precisely his direct contact with the British Government and the Cabinet here in London that has been a major and perhaps decisive element in his appointment.

Finally, I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends would wish me to extend good wishes to the newly appointed Governor in his task, which is of such immense importance not only to the future of the people of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia but to the reputation and success of this country as well.

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said, particularly about my right hon. and noble Friend. The parties to the conference have, of course, been informed of what I have said. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have already agreed on the ceasefire and only the details remain to be settled. We believe that that can be done quite quickly. But the process of finalising these arrangements will require a British authority on the spot in Rhodesia.

My right hon. and hon. Friends should also like to join in welcoming the appointment of Lord Soames, who I think will be the right person for what will be a difficult and testing role. We wish him every success.

Can the right hon. Gentleman explain the last sentence in his statement, which begins:
"When the Governor arrives in Salisbury and his authority is accepted"?
What exactly has to take place before his authority is accepted? Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the document which many hon. Members will have received this morning, presuambly from the Muzorewa Government, which sets out the proposals for independence and also sets out in some detail what the Governor's role will be? It seems to be very wide-ranging. Can he confirm that the information contained in the document is, roughly speaking, correct?

I have not seen the document. I assume that it is accurate, although I do not know that. I think that the authorities accept that Lord Soames will arrive to take over. That is all the significance that attaches to the last sentence of my statement.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about my right hon. and noble Friend, who, as the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) and the hon. Gentleman have said, will have a most difficult task to fulfil. Lord Soames has great qualities which I am sure make him almost uniquely fitted to carry out the task.

On behalf of my hon. Friends, I express good wishes for the success of the new Governor. He will have a difficult task, as we all appreciate. When he arrives in Salisbury, will all sanctions be lifted?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about my right hon. and noble Friend. Sanctions will be lifted on the return to legality, which is when the Governor goes to Salisbury. If there were any other outcome, it would mean that we were applying sanctions against ourselves.

May I press the Lord Privy Seal about when the Governor will go to Salisbury? Will it be when the formal declaration is signed at Lancaster House, or will it be only when hostilities have ceased, the Patriotic Front forces have assembled in their particular locations and the Zimbabwe forces have been withdrawn to barracks?

It will be well before that. One of the primary tasks of the Governor will be to supervise that process. It is inconceivable that it could be done without him. As I said earlier this week, he will be going in the course of next week.

May I, on behalf of Conservative Back Benchers who had the privilege of sitting in the House with Lord Soames, congratulate him on his appointment and congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his conduct of what have been very difficult negotiations?

Will the Lord Privy Seal say when the monitoring forces are likely to be in place in Rhodesia and what equipment will they have? Can he give an assurance that, should hostilities not have ceased before they are in place, they will not be used as a military force?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. They will not be used as a military force. They will be in place in time to supervise the concentration of forces and the reciprocal withdrawal that will take place.

We all wish the new Governor great success in his new task in Salisbury. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could tell the House who will take over Lord Soames's responsibilities at the Civil Service Department in his absence.

Lord Soames remains Lord President of the Council. In the other place, the Deputy Leader of the House, Lord Ferrets, will deputise. The Prime Minister is the Minister for the Civil Service. The Minister of State, Civil Service Department will be in charge of that Department on a day-to-day basis. Civil Service questions in the other place will be taken by Lord Ferrers.

Will the Lord Privy Seal accept that we wish the Governor well in his daunting task in Southern Rhodesia? Will he get his noble Friend to comprehend the understandable reluctance of the Patriotic Front—whose struggle has brought about the abandonment of Smith's racist regime—to put itself at the murderous mercies of the regime's army and air force, especially the activities of the white mercenaries of the Selous Scouts and other such obscene outfits?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the first part of his remarks. I am sure that he will agree that the rest of his remarks would be better discussed at Lancaster House at the meetings which will be taking place today and on Monday.

I wish my right hon. and noble Friend the Governor-elect the greatest possible success and good fortune in his task, but can my right hon. Friend say whether he is establishing a precedent by appointing a Cabinet Minister as Governor, and whether he considers, as I do, that if it is a precedent the special rank of Governor, in this combination, is an advantage in the special circumstances in which the Governor will operate?

I am not certain whether there is a precedent for this, but I rather doubt it. It indicates to the House, to the country and to Rhodesia the importance that we attach to the great and difficult task of restoring peace and democracy in Rhodesia.

Following the agreement on the principles of the ceasefire two days ago, we all understand that there are further details which can, and hopefully will, be settled in London in the next two or three days. There are other details which the Lord Privy Seal is entirely right in saying can be settled only when the Governor goes to Salisbury and has established his military council there. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that there will be a declaration of a ceasefire before the Governor departs for Salisbury?

I cannot give the exact machinery or say whether there will be a declaration. It will depend on how matters proceed next week. As I said, it is important that these things should be done concurrently. The Governor should be in Salisbury and be able to tie up the final arrangements. I very much doubt whether it will be possible to have a declaration on a ceasefire before he arrives.

Bill Presented

Health Services

Mr. Secretary Jenkin, supported by Mr. Secretary Younger, Mr. Secretary Edwards, Dr. Gerard Vaughan and Sir George Young, presented a Bill to make further provision with respect to the health services in England, Wales and Scotland and their use by private patients and with respect to hospitals and nursing homes outside those services; to dissolve or make further provision with respect to certain bodies connected with or with persons providing services within those health services; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday next and to be printed.

Orders Of The Day

Indecent Displays (Control) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

11.18 am

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am well aware of the privilege which has fallen on me, as a new Member of the House, to be accorded the opportunity to introduce a Private Member's Bill a matter of weeks after my election. I am especially conscious of the privilege because there are right hon. and hon. Members who have been in the House for many years but have not enjoyed such a privilege. I recognise the fortunate position in which I find myself. It is an important day for me, as you, Mr. Speaker, will understand. I trust that more seasoned Members will react charitably to my understandable nervousness.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Carr, who, when he was Home Secretary in 1973, first introduced an indecent displays Bill. I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), who introduced a similar Bill in the last Session. On the Second Reading of my hon. Friend's Bill, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies)—to whom I pay tribute as one who was instrumental in writing the paper on which Lord Carr's Bill was based—acknowledged that the Bill was certain to fall because of the proximity of the general election. He expressed the hope that
"there will be a good Tory private Member on a Friday to present it"—[Official Report, 26 January 1979; Vol. 961, c. 930.]
My noble Friend Lord Carr, in moving the Second Reading of his Bill, said:
"the object of the Bill is to remove indecent material from public view."—[Official Report, 13 November 1973; Vol. 864, c. 332.]
That is still the object in my Bill. It is concerned with that which is an affront to public decency. It is not a censorship measure. It restricts itself entirely to public display. It is unquestionably true today that indecent material is available in the society in which we live. I believe strongly that it ought also to be avoidable, and it is not avoidable at the moment.

We live in a freer and less restrictive society than was formerly the case. I believe that this is what people want. Nevertheless, the pendulum has swung too far. Just as people have the right to observe indecent material, people ought also to have the right not to have to observe it if they do not want to. That is what the Bill is about. I see it as being equivalent to the Street Offences Act 1959. That Act did not remove prostitution, but it removed the public nuisance of prostitution. It is in a similar vein that I present the Bill today.

The motives for supporting such a Bill as this are many. There will be those who will support it because of the outrage to public decency to which it refers. There will be those who will support it on the democratic principle that a majority of the people in the country are in support of such a Bill, and those hon. Members will want to act in accordance with their constitutents' wishes. There will be others who will have a Christian motivation, among whom I would count myself. People will have many other reasons for wanting to see the Bill on the statute book.

The motivations revolve around three areas of public concern. First, there are the indecent displays on cinema hoardings, in sex shop windows and at the front of strip clubs—the sort of thing that people observe, whether they wish to see it or not, when they walk down the street. I am unhappy that when visitors—or, in fact, natives, of this country—walk through Soho or the centres of our large cities they are bombarded by material which most of them find offensive and which gives a totally misleading impression of the moral standard on which we like to think we base our society. I hope that with the enactment of the Bill will come encouragement to councils, and particularly to the Greater London Council, which has already endeavoured to clean up part of our capital city.

The second area of concern relates to magazines and paperback book covers as they are seen in newsagents' shops, corner shops, and railway and bus stations. These again are offensive to many people and damaging to our children. I could not help noticing the other day, in a newspaper kiosk near the hospital in which I work on a part-time basis, that the shelves were lined with girlie magazines, the covers of which were indeed offensive. The kiosk was run by two young girls of about 14 or 15 years of age. I find this unacceptable.

It is easy for politicians, in debates about morality and on issues which are highly emotional, to overstate their case. Therefore, I should like, if I may, to read a letter which was passed on to me from the deputy headmistress of a school in the North of England, in the hope that I shall not be accused of bias in the presentation of my case. She wrote:
"Social changes in our society mean that many children are left unsupervised during the school holidays. They wander round the shops reading and looking at anything to relieve their boredom. Many teenagers…have with them younger children while parents are at work. Whatever is available to the teenager becomes available to the younger children. I myself saw a teenager take down a book containing sexual information and look at it along with the two young children approximately 7 and 9 years old who were in his 'care' (?)…As a deputy head teacher I feel that this nation's children are being bewildered and confused by conflicting standards. What is the point of schools trying to maintain one set of values within while society allows a completely opposing set of values without? Our children are caught in the crossfire. Schools are not islands. They have function in the climate provided by society. That climate can help or hinder, protect or destroy, support or weaken the work we try to do in school or in the home. The climate of today is giving our children 'knowledge without character', encouraging 'pleasure without conscience', and allowing 'business without morality' to flourish."
The third area of public concern to which the Bill relates is that of the unsolicited receipt of indecent advertising through the mail. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey said on the Second Reading of his Bill:
"While the law of indecency and obscenity remains so uncertain in the absence of fresh legislation, advertisers have become more adventurous in sending material which Parliament sought to restrain under the Post Office Act 1969."—[Official Report, 26 January 1979: Vol. 961, c. 909.]
I stress again that the Bill does not seek to prohibit the sale or private viewing of indecent material if people wish to involve themselves in that practice. It is not a censorship measure; it is a Bill concerned with public display.

Before dealing with the clauses of the Bill, there are two matters to which I must address myself. The first relates to the definition of indecency, and the second relates to the recent publication of the report of the Williams committee. Those who have followed these matters during the last two debates will know that the term "indecency" in the 1973 and 1979 Bills was not defined. Similarly it is not defined in my Bill.

I believe, as did the previous proposers, that it is up to the courts to indicate what is indecent; it is not up to us. That is not an abdication of responsibility, for, as has been pointed out previously, the terms "indecent" and "indecency" have been on the statute books of this country since 1824, and the courts have been applying them now for 155 years. If they have been able to apply them for 155 years, it seems to me that they do not need further assistance from us in clarifying the definition.

I gather that my hon. Friend relies particularly on the definition of indecency given by Lord Reid in Knuller v. Director of Public Prosecutions in 1972. I wonder whether he is aware of the criticisms that can be advanced of that definition and, indeed, whether he is also aware of the practice that lawyers find in matters of this kind. If a statute fails to define a term, one tends to have instead the substitution of a judicial definition, which may not be at all what those in Parliament who pass measures particularly want to see.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend stands by Lord Reid's definition and would be happy for that to be the accepted definition of "indecency". I should be grateful if he would indicate that and say whether he sees the criticisms that can be made of Lord Reid's definition in the context of what the Williams report had to say on that point.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I stand by the definition of Lord Reid only inasmuch as I understand that it is the statutory definition at the moment, having been contained in a House of Lords ruling. As to what is meant by "indecency", at the end of the day, regardless of what words this House uses in relation to indecency, the courts will give their judicial definition. My concern is that we can multiply words but that we may be no further advanced, as a result, in trying to convey to the courts what is in our minds.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I believe that he is saying that, as time goes by, interpretation may change as tastes and feelings change. The word "indecent" remains, but that interpretation may be elaborated in a different way and a different context in the circumstances of that particular date and time when juries are directed by a judge or, in this case, a judge is directing himself as if he were sitting as a jury to determine what is indecent.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that helpful interjection, and he is quite right.

I also take comfort from the fact that the recommendation in paragraph 30 of the Home Office report of the working party on vagrancy and street offences, published in 1976, also indicated that no attempt should be made to define the term "indecency". The Minister of State, Home Office is with us today and I point out that recommendation in the hope that he will also find it acceptable.

If the word used in the Vagrancy Act 1824 is still applicable, and as that Act covers all the points that the hon. Gentleman has in mind in his Bill, why does he want to bring in another Bill?

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's considerable interest in the matter and have noticed his involvement in both previous debates. I believe that he knows the answer. In the Vagrancy Act 1824, the terms "indecency" and "obscenity" are used, if not interchangeably, certainly in a way that is not at all clear and which has been subsequently affected by legislation, particularly in the realm of obscenity. I am introducing the Bill to help clarify the indecency aspect.

It is important, and we should not lose sight of the fact, that what constitutes indecency must be understood by the courts. I also encourage the House to realise that most ordinary people—and it is with them in mind that the Bill is introduced—know what is meant by indecency as a matter of common sense. They are not lawyers, but they are aware of what offends them and their children. We are here today to get to grips with that problem.

I have not been told, but I have a suspicion, that the publication of the Williams report was expedited so that it was available before our debate today, and I welcome that. Had the report still been in the offing, there would have been some uncertainty. However, I make the point immediately that my Bill and the Williams report are in no way synonymous in scope. The Williams committee reported on the whole range of obscenity, film censorship and related matters.

My Bill is a modest Bill and I am surprised how moderate it is. It deals with only one small aspect of the scope of the Williams committee.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the House should have had an opportunity to debate the Williams report before dealing with this Bill?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but on the whole I think not. If the report had been debated, that would have been fine, but there is no requirement for that because its scope and breadth is far in excess of the measure that we are considering this morning.

I am encouraged by the fact that the Williams report acknowledges that there is genuine concern in our country about pornography and indecent displays. Even though we are not debating that report this morning—the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) may wish that we were—I happily acknowledge that fact.

It has been said that this House should not contemplate legislation ahead of that based on Williams, but I do not accept that view. As I have tried to indicate, this Bill is not new legislation. It seeks rather to consolidate and bring up to date existing legislation. For example, section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 talks of
"exposing to view, in any street, road, highway or public place, any obscene print, picture or other indecent exhibition".
It is the lack of clarity between obscenity and indecency that has clouded the issue and made it difficult for the police to operate.

Similarly, the Vagrancy Act 1838, the Indecent Advertisements Act 1889 and the Indecent Advertisements (Amendment) Act 1979 relate in some way or other to indecency, and this Bill seeks to clarify and bring up to date laws that in part are already on the statute book. There is no need to wait for debate on Williams and any subsequent legislation, because we are not breaking new ground.

The Government, albeit not this Government, have on two occasions breached the principle that there should not be new legislation ahead of Williams. In 1978 my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), who is a cosponsor of this Bill, introduced the Protection of Children Bill, which subsequently became law. It was said at that time that he ought not to move until the Williams committee had reported. I am sure that the House and many people in the country are glad that he did not accept that advice but pressed ahead.

The House will understand my concern over the attitude that the Government might take. May I point out to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister that the amendments contained in the Criminal Law Act 1977 which relate to the Obscene Publications Acts 1959 and 1964 in regard to films were also enacted ahead of Williams? The argument was again used that there ought not to be movement, but the two Front Benches got together and decided to breach that principle. The principle of not legislating ahead of Williams has been breached from the Front and Back Benches, and I hope that the House and the Government will allow a third breach.

It is quite reasonable that the Government should want to enter into consultations based on Williams, but that will take time, and perhaps considerable time. Even the new boys in this House are beginning to realise that the amount of legislation proposed for this year and next, and perhaps the year after, is such that, even if those consultations were satisfactory and the Government decided to legislate on Williams, the chance of that legislation coming before the House in the next two or three years is remote. I believe that that view is widely shared on both sides of the House. We should not defer this modest yet important measure for another two or three years on the chance that the Government might legislate.

I am sorry to trespass on my hon. Friend's good nature a second time, but, having read and approved of the Williams report, I am genuinely concerned to know what it is about his Bill that so tightens up the present law that it would not be right to wait for Williams, if we had an assurance that legislation based on Williams was proposed.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question. I have already tried to answer it in terms of the offence that is presently being created. I shall return to that point in a few moments, if my hon. Friend will indulge me for a few more minutes.

If the legislation were to be enacted now and the Government were to introduce future legislation, that would have the benefit of the experience which had been derived from the enactment of this legislation. Let me say to the Minister, in what I hope he will accept to be a friendly and co-operative spirit, that if the House gives a Second Reading to the Bill today, and, subsequently, in Committee the Government wish to discuss amendments to the Bill, perhaps based on initial consultations on the Williams report, I shall be most happy to meet the appropriate officials to discuss such amendments.

I return to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). There is an urgency in the matter. I disagree with the Williams committee that there is no link between pornography and sex crimes. The Williams committee claimed that it could find no way of determining whether the widely made claim that pornography had increased over recent years was true. It seems to me that the members must have walked around with their eyes shut if they could not detect that increase. I shall make two points to illustrate the fact that I believe the committee advanced a fallacious argument when it said that there was no link between pornography and sex crimes. The points that I shall make indicate the urgency which faces us today.

The Williams committee settled foe the conclusion that sex crimes in Denmark levelled off after 1973. It left it at that. Last week I received figures from Denmark that showed that there were 286 cases of rape and 57 cases of incest in 1977 and 484 cases of rape and 92 cases of incest in 1978 compared with a total of 130 cases in 1973. The Williams committee called that a levelling off. I certainly do not call it a levelling off. The Danish police tell me that, when the obscenity laws were repealed in Denmark in 1969, 8·5 per cent. of all crimes were sexual. In 1978, the figure was 20 per cent.

As my hon. Friend says, to the Williams committee that is levelling off. It is not levelling off to me.

Last week, I also received figures from Lieutenant Daniel Pope of the Michigan State police in the United States. The Michigan police have conducted a massive research project. They have collected all the evidence associated with 38,000 sex crime cases which have occurred in that State since 1952 and have fed the information into a computer. Those crimes include everything from indecent display, lust crimes, masochistic murders and what the lieutenant describes as "auto-erotic deaths". The result indicated that in 41 per cent. of all cases pornography was involved either immediately prior to or during the sex crime. The lieutenant further told me that his police authority, in common with those in other States, believes that the proportion is as high as 75 per cent. Given those figures, I cannot accept that there is no urgency in the matter.

For that reason, I strenuously urge the House not to use the argument that we must wait for the off chance that the Government will legislate at some time on the Williams report. We must take a small step in the right direction now to protect not only our people but also our children.

I ask the House to look briefly at the clauses in the Bill. Clause 1 makes it an offence to display in public indecent material in places to which people have access, whether or not on payment. I have introduced two provisos to that clause. First, I have provided that it will not be an indecent display if the public are not permitted to have access except on payment which is or includes payment for the display itself and the display is one to which no person under the age of 18 is admitted. Secondly, I have provided an exclusion for a shop or part of a shop provided that there is an adequate warning notice so that people are aware of what they are entering and, again, provided that young people under the age of 18 are not permitted to enter.

I introduced those exceptions, particularly the second one, in order to protect the right of sex shops and pornographic book shops to exist. The House should not construe that to mean that I like either of those types of establishments, but the exclusions are in keeping with the philosophy of the Bill. At the start of my speech I told the House that this is not a censorship Bill. I do not intend to try to legislate underhand and in a censorship fashion. It is a public display Bill and, as such, the provisions are in keeping with the philosophy that runs through the Bill. If people know what they are entering, they should be free to enter as far as the Bill is concerned.

Will the hon. Gentleman clear up an obscurity in the drafting of subsection (3)? Normally, when there are paragraphs (a) and (b) in this sort of subsection it is indicated whether there is an "or" or an "and" between them. Do we take it that an "or" or an "and" has been left out?

There is not meant to be an "and" here. They are two separate types of exclusion. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if, in my learning state, I have not got the matter quite right. I shall be happy to take up in Committee the point that he makes. I would add that the word "shop" is as defined in the Shops Act 1950.

Subsection (4) has created a certain amount of feeling and emotion. It excludes television broadcasts from the provisions of the Bill. Not many people would wish television broadcasts to be included in the Bill. I have heard it said in a somewhat derogatory fashion "This is a Whitehouse Bill and she has obviously got Mawhinney to front for her."

Despite the reaction of the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), that is not true. Mrs. Whitehouse and I had never met, talked, or communicated until I announced that I wished to introduce the Bill.

However, for the record, I pay tribute to the lady. Her views are not the views of us all but she has contributed mightily to the preservation of moral and Christian standards in the country which have been under attack from certain sections of the community. If the House believes in democracy, it does well to salute those who are prepared to devote themselves to upholding that democratic principle. I am glad that she and the National Viewers' and Listeners Association find most of the Bill acceptable, although they do not find this subsection acceptable. They have let me and the rest of the country know that view through the columns of The Times. I accept that that is their view.

I am guided, as was my predecessor, by two main considerations. The Independent Broadcasting Authority Act 1973 puts a duty on television companies to satisfy themselves that
"so far as possible, the programmes broadcast by the Authority comply with the following requirements, that is to say—(a) that nothing is included in the programmes which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite crime".
The BBC operates under a sort of gentleman's agreement based on the same words.

What concerns many of us is that the law is apparently not applied with the rigour that the lawmakers intended. There are many things on television that I, too, find offensive, and it is a matter of grave concern, but television is essentially a production in a private place for receipt in a private place—the home—though it appears in public places such as the windows of television rental shops, hotel foyers and so on.

I am not convinced that the Bill is the correct vehicle for legislating against indecency on television, but if my hon. Friends believe overwhelmingly in Committee that I am wrong I shall be prepared to reconsider the matter.

I understand that my hon. Friend is deeply concerned about the impact on young people. Does he agree that television, above all, is an instrument to which youngsters have access, sometimes when their parents are not present and when they have parents who do not care?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend and I am gravely concerned about that problem. As I have told more than one of my hon. Friends, I am not sure that the Bill is the right way to deal with that matter, but if lightning should strike twice and I win a place in the ballot for Private Members' Bills again next year—to the consternation of some of my hon. Friends—I shall be sorely tempted to introduce a one-clause Bill dealing with indecent material on television so that we may debate the problems associated with television programmes untrammelled by other matters.

I know from my discussions with the Home Office that there was some concern about whether cable television would be covered by the provisions of the Bill. I am informed that under sections 90 and 92 of the Post Office Act 1969 there is at least similar control over cable television services as that exercised over the IBA.

The Bill also specifically excludes indecent displays that take place on premises that members of the public have paid to enter for the specific purpose of seeing displays—for example, cinemas, theatres and clubs where people pay to see entertainment.

The exemption in clause 1(5) for the human body obviously relates to the live human body, because that aspect is already covered by legislation. It has been suggested that the drafting may not be entirely clear. If that is the case, I shall be happy to introduce appropriate amendments in Committee.

Clause 2 deals with the admission of children under 18 to public places where there are indecent displays. That is entirely in line with legislation on X-rated films and betting shops. I chose the age of 18 rather than 16 to keep the Bill in line with existing legislation and because we all understand that there will be breaches of the law from time to time, and I hope that the House agrees that it is better that young people of 16 or 17 should be exposed to this type of material rather than youngsters of 14 and 15.

Hon. Members will have noted that the clause refers to young people
"apparently under the age of 18".
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey, in Committee on his Bill, tabled an amendment to include a provision making it an offence to admit or permit admission of a child under the age of 18. Such a provision would impose upon a shopkeeper strict liability, which is a heavy burden and one which I believe that Parliament may be reluctant to impose.

The expression
"apparently under the age of 18"
appears to be more acceptable and it has the merit of having a precedent in relation to admission to films. It is taken from the model licensing conditions issued to local authorities by the Home Office in circular 57/70, which states:
"No person apparently under the age of 18 years shall be admitted to any exhibition at which there is to be shown any film which has received an X Certificate from the BBFC."
Breach of that condition when incorporated in a licence is an offence under section 3 of the Cinematograph Act 1909.

My hon. Friend is dealing with a matter which will cause concern to a number of people. Surely a provision relating strictly to young people under the age of 18 would be no more onerous than the obligation imposed on licensees in the serving of drink. What is the meaning of

"apparently under the age of 18"?
Does it mean that it will be an offence to admit someone of 25 who looks rather young? As a lawyer, I can see all sorts of problems involved in the provision.

No doubt my hon. Friend's colleagues in the legal profession have come to terms with the sort of problems that lie foresees, since the phraseology is already on the statute book. If there is a problem, I shall be happy to consider amendments to clarify the matter. The House knows what I am trying to do. In the use of the word "apparently" I am treating the owners of premises favourably. If hon. Members can find a better way of expressing my intentions, I am open to suggestions.

Clause 3 makes it an offence to use a picture machine for the viewing of indecent pictures, whether moving pictures, as in the previous Bill, or still pictures, in any place to which the public have access.

Clause 4 makes it an offence to send through the post unsolicited matter that is indecent or contains anything that is indecent. Subsection (2) has been included because it is not our intention that postmen who unwittingly deliver such material should be legally liable, as would have been the case previously. Postmen are excluded from the clause.

Clause 5 deals with the penalties in the Bill. As in the previous Bill, provision is made for people to be tried before magistrates or in a Crown court. Those who are concerned that local justice, in the form of magistrates, may vary around the country will have the option of trial in a Crown court, which will, by definition, be much more uniform throughout the country.

I have taken up the Government amendment made to the previous Bill and used the term "statutory maximum" rather than specifying fines. That will enable fines to be upgraded, as is customary in other legislation. The clause also permits the forfeiture of offending material.

Clause 6 deals with the power of arrest. I have already had discussions with the Metropolitan Police, who welcome the clause, which also provides protection for a constable against legal action in a case where he has arrested someone who is subsequently found not guilty.

Clause 7 is a consequential amendment to the Theatres Act and makes clear that the Bill does not apply to plays. Clause 8 defines "picture machine", "adequate warning notice" and "shop". Hon. Members who were involved with the previous Bill will note that I have used definitions advanced both by the sponsor of the previous Bill and by the previous Government in order to clarify those matters.

Clause 9 provides for enactment in the standard form.

The Bill covers the whole of the United Kingdom. I see no reason why it should not cover Northern Ireland, and I have acted to ensure that it includes Northern Ireland. I am grateful to those hon. Members from Northern Ireland constituencies who, at considerable inconvenience, have remained today to give their support to the Bill.

I wish to comment on the absence of any mention of Northern Ireland in the Bill. I am sure that it is an oversight. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that aspect?

Northern Ireland is specifically mentioned in Clause 5.

Hon. Members will have noticed that the Bill differs from the previous Bill on the subject by way of omission in three main aspects. I have not included the clause on indecent signs and indecent advertising, or advertising which leads people to believe that a publication may or may not be indecent. That matter was of considerable concern to the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon). I hope that he is now satisfied.

More controversially, I have deleted from the Bill the mention of art galleries. The distinction between art galleries and museums provided by the Crown or a public authority or charity which were exempted in the previous Bill, and commercial galleries, which were not exempted, is illogical. We should group all art galleries and museums together. I have chosen not to give them exemption on the ground that, as there is no tight definition of indecency, any prosecution will take into account the context. I find it difficult to believe that, for example. anyone would consider a painting by Rembrandt to be indecent. Before hon. Members jump to their feet, I should say that I realise that the matter is contentious. It is not one on which I have a closed mind. If in Committee it is the view that art galleries and museums should be brought within the scope of the Bill, I shall be pleased to discuss that point.

In keeping with the report of the Home Office working party on vagrancy and street offences, I have not limited the right to bring prosecutions to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Bill relates to public display, and it is aimed at protecting the public. I believe that the public should have the right to express their views directly. The limits of the Bill and the case law will quickly determine the scope of its application.

There is much public support for the Bill. Petitions with as many as 1½ million signatories have been presented to encourage the House to act. I know that hon. Members have received much correspondence on the subject. Some hon. Members have commented to me on the amount of mail which they have received. It has been overwhelmingly in favour of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey said that he had received representations from about 1,000 people in support of his Bill. I have had representations from about 3,300 people in support of mine. Representations have tripled in 10 months.

That indicates a measure of support for the Bill which the House would be unwise to overlook. Support has been received from all parts of the United Kingdom and from people in every walk of life, including many women. It has been based in secular society, including the Church. To be fair, I must admit that I have received three letters opposing the measure. One was from a group with a vested interest, one was anonymous and the third was from a person who genuinely disagreed with the Bill.

Compelling pressure and public concern require us to act now. I ask the Government to help us to achieve a measure on which action must be started now. I ask them not to use the Williams report as a means of thwarting action pending a future legislative millennium which may never happen. The Bill is much in demand by our constituents, and it is long overdue.

I commend the Bill to the House, and I hope that it will be given a Second Reading.

12.6 pm

I preface my comments by congratulating the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) on his courage and wisdom in introducing the Bill now. He explained the Bill with clarity, conviction and grace, when hon. Members whose views differed from his interjected in his introductory comments. It is particularly pleasing for me, as an Ulsterman and as a Member who represents an Ulster constituency, that the Bill was introduced by a Member whose roots lie in the Province. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has again brought to the attention of the House this important legislation which is timely, relevant and desperately needed in the whole of the United Kingdom and certainly in Northern Ireland.

I intervened in the hon. Gentleman's speech because it is important that the legislation should be applied to Northern Ireland. I sought a statement, such as that included in the previous Bill, that this Bill applies to Northern Ireland. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to the reference to Northern Ireland in clause 5. It might be helpful to those who buy copies of the Bill in the Province if it is made clear that the measure does apply to Northern Ireland.

I shall not rehearse all the arguments which can be found in detail in copies of Hansard covering the 1973 debate and the debate which took place earlier this year. However, I wish to stress three points at this juncture.

First, the Bill is not about censorship. It is not an attempt to rob people of pleasure which they enjoy or in which they engage. It is about the right of choice. For that reason, I should have thought that the Bill would be appreciated by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is not an attempt to remove the publication of pornography, much as I should like that. I am a realist. I do not think that that will ever happen. I do not believe that the House can ever legislate in a way that will render the publication of pornography impossible.

The Bill clearly stresses the importance of choice for those who do not wish to be confronted by the kind of publications that we see on every street corner in certain parts of London and other major cities in the United Kingdom, including Belfast. If people are determined to view pornography, blue films and advertisements which relate to those films, there is nothing that any hon. Member can do to stop them. But we have an obligation to those who choose not to be confronted on every street corner and on hoardings by indecent matter which offends.

The first point to be made about the Bill is that it seeks to safeguard the right of choice. I believe that the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom would choose not to be confronted by indecent matter, not to have to view lewd publications when they go to buy their newspapers and not to be confronted by a hoarding showing all kinds of obscene poses when, for instance, they go shopping and take their children with them. Therefore, the right of those people to choose not to be offended, insulted or embarrassed has been asserted in the House today. I commend the hon. Member for Peterborough on having asserted the right of the vast majority of people in the kingdom in that respect.

The second point to be stressed is that the Bill relates to the norms that will become apparent in the life of this nation. Whether we like it or not, if pornography becomes more widespread and adventurous, coming generations will accept it as the norm both to purchase and to view these publications. They will accept from this generation that it is normal both to view and enjoy these publications. The House must determine the norms for the nation not only for this generation but, if possible, for succeeding generations.

I return to the point made by a former President of the United States, who said that it was nonsense to suggest that filth did not corrupt; it was as much nonsense to suggest that as to say that beauty did not enrich. It is not insignificant that in parts of the world where pornography has become rampant the very ethos of the districts where it is to be found has reflected declining concern, standards and behaviour. It is not insignificant to me that where pornography abounds the very buildings, demeanour and attitudes of the people reflect a decadence and a fall in self-respect. That kind of observation could be applied to a nation as a whole. Any nation that allows pornography to become part and parcel of its life will soon be seen as a nation that has become less concerned with keeping up standards in other aspects of life and society. Therefore, an attempt is being made today to defend the norm of decency, morality and cleanliness.

Thirdly, this legislation should be workable. One of the objections in previous debates was that if legislation based on this type of Bill or on its forerunners came into being it would not be work- able. Indeed, it was suggested that there was no need for extra legislation.

The hon. Member for Peterborough dealt clearly and ably with that kind of criticism, which has already emerged in this debate. However, he did not stress that one of the reasons why we need new legislation is that some of the penalties to be found in the vagrancy legislation, to which he and others referred, are totally unrealistic in these days. We are talking about fines in the Vagrancy Acts of 20s. Yet we are talking about £6, £7 and £10 as the cost of one of these publications. If only one of these books was sold, the profit would cover the fines set out in previous vagrancy legislation five, 10 or 100 times over. Therefore, there is a need for new legislation and for new levels of fines to be imposed. That would certainly justify the introduction of the Bill.

On the workability of existing legislation, whatever the niceties of the lawyers' arguments, let us descend from the heady heights of jurisprudence and go to every corner of society, every main line railway station, and if we find that the legislation is adequate and workable we must castigate the police because something has gone wrong. Either the legislation is not workable or it has not been enforced.

I do not believe that there is a total lack of concern among police forces in the United Kingdom. I believe that if the legislation were adequate and enforceable it would be enforced. The police take this matter seriously. About a year ago I had occasion to report a consignment of about 12,000 indecent publications. The police acted swiftly. Those publications, selling at about £7 each, were taken, and fines and imprisonment ensued from that information given to the police. The police want to enforce the legislation, but I do not believe that it is adequate. For that reason, I again commend the hon. Member for Peterborough on introducing the Bill.

We are not here today to debate the Williams report in detail, so I shall not incur your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by doing so, but Williams sides with the hon. Member for Peterborough when it comes to indecent displays. Williams clearly recognises the importance and worth of this kind of Bill. I should not like the House to get that point out of perspective. Hon. Members should appreciate that whatever problems Williams has with definitions or with other facets of pornography, he certainly is at one with the hon. Member for Peterborough on the display of indecent material. Legislation arising from the Bill is necessary and would be workable. I think that Williams can be called in aid to support that argument. The nation is ready for the subsequent Act which would be based on the Bill.

One of the great evils of pornography is not that it is an intrusion into our privacy at any given moment but that its effect can morally debilitate at a much later time than when it is actually viewed. The dreadful effect of pornography can emerge when one is least prepared, both morally and spiritually, to cope with it.

Let me explain what I mean. Someone who goes to buy a newspaper might chance upon an obscene magazine. A friend standing with him will obviously see the magazine. That friend might say that the magazine had no effect on him, that he did not need the stuff and would not read it. That would be a fair point, but the mind is like a filing cabinet. Every visual scene upon which a person chances is stored in the recesses of the mind. Nothing is ever forgotten. When a person is at his weakest morally and spiritually, the mind can flash visual scenes back to him That can so debilitate that the sort of unfortunate crimes about which we have heard today from the hon. Member for Peterborough are directly related to the re-emergence of that obscene visual image on the screen of the mind.

Let no one lightly shrug off the effects of viewing obscene matter. I believe that the old adage "Out of sight, out of mind", while it may be inadequate to deal with some of our problems, is applicable to, and adequate to deal with, the problem of pornography. Those who seek pornography will rejoice and indulge in it. Whatever actions ensue are not for me to anticipate, but I know that many people who later find themselves in situations of shame can trace the beginnings of temptation back to the viewing of obscene visual images. I ask the House to take this seriously particularly as it affects our young people.

Our young people are neither spiritually mature nor mature in any sense of the word. They are not able to cope with these explicit and obscene images, all of which register on the mind, and all of which will either cause those young people, at some stage, the greatest degree of temptation or result in experiences which they later deeply regret. The hon. Member for Peterborough has done the House and the nation a great service. I hope that his Bill will get a Second Reading today and that the Government will pursue this matter with all haste and ensure that the Bill becomes an Act or Parliament for which the nation will be deeply grateful.

12.23 pm

Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is a great honour for me to be in this the Mother of Parliaments making my maiden speech. I address you as a Welshman representing an area of the Principality in which I was born and bred. Perhaps I should explain, for the benefit of the people in the Gallery, that I will talk a little bit about my constituency and not about the Bill for a while yet.

There are two reasons why I will not address you in the Welsh language Mr. Deputy Speaker. The first is that you will not allow me to do so, and the second is that I do not speak that language. But, like 80 per cent. of the people of Montgomery, I am an Anglicised Welshman and am happy to say that both languages and cultures coexist happily without any rancour.

Sometimes that situation can be amusing. I recall being introduced by a lady from Aberystwyth who spoke more Welsh than English. She was extolling my virtues as a candidate. She said "Mr. Williams is a very good man as I know. I have been out on tit: streets with him twice already." That can happen where two languages coexist.

I am a native of Forden on the Welsh border, just like Owain Glyndwr, save that he was born just on the other side of the border from Montgomeryshire, and, as is well known, set up his own Parliament at Machynlleth. I do not intend to set up my own Parliament until I judge how I am received by this one.

Owain Glyndwr was but one famous man to affect the lives of people from my area. One of Montgomery's most famous sons was the reformer Robert Owen. He was born in Newtown of a mother whose name was Williams. He is no relation of mine as far as I am aware. As a child, Robert Owen read "Robinson Crusoe" and believed every word of it. That may explain why he became one of the forerunners of modern Socialism.

Almost a century later, and born in Newtown, came Colonel Pryce Jones, one of the last Conservatives to represent my area in this House. His distinction was the introduction of the mail order service. It began in Newtown and soon spread throughout this country, America and then the rest of the world. Less distinguished was his manner of dealing with tenants who did not vote for him. That may well account for the 99 years of Liberalism which ensued in Montgomery.

The Chartist movement had its early days in Montgomery, and by contrast at Dolobran the Quaker movement had its roots. The history of this gentle movement enriches my area. The Lloyd brothers of Dolobran founded Lloyd's Bank at Welshpool and also started Stewarts and Lloyds, in the Midlands.

My constituency is also enriched by the River Severn, gentle wooded hillsides and kind-hearted people. It is known as Powys Paradwys Cymru—the Paradise of Wales. We have in the Clywedog dam near Llanidloes one of the highest dams in Europe. The tallest tree in the United Kingdom resides at Powys Castle, the ancestral home of Clive of India. It is now the residence of the Earl of Powys near Welshpool. In nearby Leighton stands the finest redwood glade in Europe.

Our assets are not confined to the beauties of nature. Last year Miss United Kingdom and Miss World finalist Ann Jones came from my home town of Welshpool. The retiring United Kingdom Dairy Princess, Sabrina Jones, came from the picturesque village of Berriew, only three miles away. It can be seen how fortunate we are in my area. We sent Phil Woosnam from Caersws to America as a missionary to teach them association football. From CarnoLaura Ashley sends out fashions designed in Mid-Wales to all parts of the world.

Our main industry is the service industry, involving 37 per cent. of the work force, the majority of whom are self-employed small business people. Our second industry is agriculture, including a host of small independent farmers and smallholders. We have some of the finest Friesian herds in the country. From Plinlimmon, where the Severn rises, to the Severn valley there is the whole spectrum of agriculture. There are hill farmers who welcome the latest awards after a hard winter and late spring, and our marginal farmers still await the review on marginal land. In Welshpool we have the biggest one-day sheep sale in Europe. The current lamb negotiations, therefore, are of some importance to us.

We welcome the influx of a new industry. While recent cuts in regional aid will have a restraining effect on some individuals, we feel that we are hardworking and courageous enough to make our own way in the world, provided that these cuts are the last to be inflicted on our area, and provided that the Government continue to understand the problem of population sparsity in relation to the rate support grant.

I pay tribute to the work of the Development Board for Rural Wales. Though far from perfect, it has done much to improve the quality of life in Mid-Wales and to stem the drift of depopulation. I hope that the board will be allowed to continue—reconstructed perhaps, but inhibited by restraints.

For 99 years my constituency has been represented in this House by Members of the Liberal Party. Clement Davies, the one-time leader of the Liberal Party, and a respected, not to say revered, man, represented the area from 1929 to 1962. My predecessor, Emlyn Hooson, took over and he was a great asset to the Liberal Party. He always tried to help individual constituents with their problems. To that extent he was peerless, but he is no longer peerless. On behalf of my constituency—I know that I speak for all shades of opinion—I congratulate him and Lady Hooson on his elevation to the other House.

On both sides of the turn of the century, politics in Montgomery was dominated by the Davies family of Llandinam and the Williams Wynn family. Lord Hooson and myself—both lawyers—often recall the story of the Williams Wynn hunt which had trapped an unfortunate fox in a cul-de-sac. The master, Sir Watkin, turned to his huntsman and said "There is only one thing that will save him now, and that is a Montgomeryshire jury." We in Montgomery give most people the benefit of the doubt, and that goes for this particular piece of legislation.

I support this Bill with reservations, as it does not interfere with personal freedom and accepts the reality of varying standards of morality. Every parent will welcome the Bill and look forward to its early implementation, especially in the metropolitan area. It will be a relief to be able to take one's children for a walk in London without seeing unmitigated garbage glaring from so many places upon a largely unwilling public.

However, I am concerned about the Bill. The definition of "matter" in clause 1 (5) as it affects the definition of public display is in danger of making nonsense of the Bill. It states:
"In this section 'manner' includes anything capable of being displayed, except that it does not include the human body or any part of it"
Let us read clause 1 (2) and add the above definition after the word "matter" referred to therein. It would then read:
"Subject to subsection (3) below any matter not including the human body or any part of it shall be deemed for the purposes of this section to be publicly displayed if it is…"
What is the effect of that? Is a live human displayed in a window exempt from the definition of public display? Is a photograph or drawing of a human body exempt? It appears that there is an error in drafting. An explicit demonstration of sexual technique, of necessity involving the human body, appears to be excluded from the definition of public display in the Bill.

I hope that other hon. Members will be able to clear up my doubts. I share the concern about clause 2. There is scope for ambiguity in that clause. Provision could have been made to cover costs. Many offended persons are persuaded not to prosecute because of the costs that can be awarded against them. No one wants to encourage vexatious litigation, but the public conscience should not always be protected at the risk of private expense, bearing in mind the huge profits made by the porn kings. Subject to those comments, I support the Bill in principle.

12.31 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) on his good fortune in the ballot. I have tried for many years but have never succeeded in the ballot. The hon. Member spoke sincerely and with much knowledge on a subject which he has studied carefully for a long time. However, I question whether the public support and interest in this matter is as widespread as he suggests. He mentioned the number of letters that he had received. I have received none on this subject. Perhaps that is because my views are known. One should not use the number of letters that one receives to gauge the amount of interest in a subject.

I agree with the hon. Member that we have an obligation to legislate as far as we can to produce effective and enforceable legislation to improve the quality of our life. If there are abuses, we should take whatever steps are possible and practical to improve the situation. The hon. Member said that this was a small Bill. That is a description that could be applied to many controversial measures. The Bill which took us into the Common Market was physically small but it had enormous consequences.

The hon. Member made various assertions that are untrue. He said that he was convinced that there is a link between pornography and sex crimes. He wrote off the evidence produced by the Williams committee. By the use of selected statistics, politicians can prove anything. There is no conclusive evidence, one way or the other, that there is such a link. The hon. Member quoted figures for Denmark and the State of Michigan because it suited his case to do that. To make a generalised argument on the basis of those figures is dangerous. Few scientific observers would accept them as hard evidence.

The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) says that there are no hard and fast statistics one way or the other. Should not we err on the side of caution and take action?

I do not accept that. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether there is hard and fast proof of a direct connection between pornography and sex crimes. There must be some statistical evidence one way or the other. We should not legislate on hunches or on selected statistics.

Surely we are concerned not with whether pornography should be available but with the public display of it on the streets to be seen by anybody who passes by. It is not a question of whether pornography causes someone to permit an offence. We are concerned with whether the law-abiding citizens who come down to London from Fife feel insulted by what they see in the shops here.

Appendix 5 of the Williams report states that

"the sex crime statistics in England have increased markedly over the past few years (particularly in London)".
That confirms one of the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney).

The figures for rainfall may increase over a certain period. When there is a coincidence of two happenings, one is not necessarily a consequence of the other. So far as I know, there is no conclusive evidence, one way or the other, that there is a link. The Minister appears to agree with me and I hope that we shall have confirmation of that from him.

I am not against the principle of the Bill. I see no reason why we should not make an attempt at legislation so long as we can make it enforceable and practicable. However, I always become a little queasy when we deal with these matters in the House. There are far too many fusspots around. I include Mrs. Whitehouse in that category. Too many people seek to compel others to conform to standards which they believe to be right, on the assumption that everybody who disagrees with them must be wrong or immoral. Some of those people have made a good commercial proposition out of such a posture.

It is not attractive for anybody to appear to be forcing others into accepting his tastes or mode of behaviour in any art form. I know what I want to watch, even in Soho. I know what I want to watch on television or in any other media. I like looking at page 3 in the tabloid newspapers. When I go to the Tea Room in the morning, many hon. Members make for those tabloid newspapers as a refresher before they start their day's work. So far as I know, they are not depraved by it—at least, I hope they are not.

I know what I like to read, to see and to listen to. I do not want to be dictated to on these matters by anyone. I do not think that I have been corrupted in any way by any of these things—at least, I hope that I have not—and I have read, seen and watched things of all descriptions. I have a broad mind on these matters. However benevolent he may be, as the hon. Member for Peterborough is, anyone who seeks to interfere with my freedom of choice in any of these matters is in for very rough treatment—not physically, but certainly verbally.

For that reason, I view with less than 100 per cent. enthusiasm the introduction of the Bill. Whatever the hon. Gentleman might think, it is a form of censorship and a restriction of the practice and principles that his party adheres to—the principles of private enterprise and thrusting initiative. That is what it is all about in Soho.

Of course it is. It is unfettered private enterprise seeking the quick buck from the tourist or the poor innocent Scotsman from Fife.

The hon. Gentleman has tried to force us on, saying that we cannot wait for Williams and it is imperative that we act now. I see no desperate urgency about this matter at all. There are social problems—there can be no doubt about that—but the Bill is not a top priority for the House at this time.

Moreover, the Bill as it stands makes no attempt to improve on the definition of "indecency" or the word "matter", or the definition of what is or is not a public display. These are difficulties that have plagued the House and the legislature since we have sought, by private measure or by Government legislation, to deal with them.

I have here a copy of a brief that was sent to me by the Defence of Literature and the Arts Society, the sponsors of which are respectable people. I shall not go through the names, but the House will know that the people connected with this organisation are respectable figures of our society. Nobody would say that they were freaks or anything of that kind. They argue that the Bill, among other things, takes no account of the intentions of the accused. The display, for instance, might be inadvertent, and no provision is made for that.

My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon) will no doubt say something about the proposed increased powers of the police, because, according to the interpretation put on the Bill by the organisation to which I have referred, the police are given increased powers of search and seizure, and they will not need the direction of the Director of Public Prosecutions before commencing a prosecution. That is the more serious because of the severe penalties that are laid down.

The hon. Member for Peterborough said that he would not index the penalties, but the implication of what he said was that, to take account of inflation, there would be power to increase those penalties in subsequent years.

Nor is there any requirement in the Bill, so far as I know, for those who have been offended or allegedly offended by such a display to give evidence to that effect. If a person says that he has been offended, he should be obliged to give evidence to that effect.

The Bill will probably get a Second Reacting this afternoon. I shall not bother to vote against it because the chances of its reaching the statute book are negligible. I think that the hon. Gentleman accepts that, but, if he does not, I shall tell him why I believe that to be so. As he knows, he was fairly successful in the ballot. I do not know what the precise number was—

Seven. So there are six Bills in front of his. There is one Standing Committee in the House dealing with Private Members' Bills, and the first of the seven Bills is now still in Committee. I happen to be on that Committee, dealing with the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, and that Bill is floundering. It has 11 clauses in it, two have already been withdrawn, three are in the process of complete redrafting because they are in such a mess, the promoter of the Bill has mumps, and the Committee has been adjourned until next Wednesday because the Minister is busy shenaniganing around in London and is not available until Wednesday. That Bill is likely to stay in Committee for a considerable time. Moreover, of the other five Bills in front of this that have yet to go into Committee, the next is the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill, which also is controversial. And so the Session will go on.

I suppose that we can have this exercise. It is one way of filling up a Friday, I suppose. It raises a matter in which some hon. Members and some of the population outside are interested. However, I do not think that it is a satisfactory way of dealing with the problem, particularly when we have the Williams report. The hon. Member was right to say that the Williams report dealt with this matter and others, but it does make clear—I think it does, anyhow—that the Government should deal with these matters. Only the Government have the necessary legal and technical expertise to produce a comprehensive measure. Therefore, I believe that the hon. Member for Peterborough, though with the best of intentions, is premature in his ambitions in this matter.

12.46 pm

I hope it will be convenient for the House if at this stage I give an indication of the Government's views on this matter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) on his good fortune in the ballot and on his wisdom in choosing to bring before the House a Bill on a matter of considerable public concern rather than a more trivial and uncontroversial piece of legislation which perhaps he was tempted to do. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the way he presented the Bill to the House.

It is a particular pleasure for me to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Williams) on his maiden speech. As one who was an Opposition spokesman on devolution in a previous incarnation, it was my pleasure to travel extensively in Wales in the cause of those who were opposed to the Wales Bill. Differing estimates were made of the prospects of the Conservative Party in the Principality about the seats that we might or might not win. The overwhelming view was that Montgomery was to be totally excluded from the ranks of possibles. Now that we have heard the wit and charm of my hon. Friend, it is perhaps easier to understand how such a bastion of Liberalism was surmounted. We welcome him and look forward to hearing from him on many future occasions.

I apologise for interrupting the Minister at this point, but I came into the Chamber after the hon. Member for Montgomery (Mr. Williams) had begun his speech and I did not know that it was a maiden speech. I fully associate myself with the remarks made by the Minister.

The Government's attitude towards this Bill is rather like that of the fond parent, or perhaps, now that the Bill has been modified in various ways since we saw the last version, the sympathetic uncle.

It was, after all, the Conservative Government of six years ago who first introduced modern legislation seeking to curb the public display of indecent matter and to meet the understandable feelings of many ordinary people that something should be done to remove the offensive sights which obtrude on their attention from street news stands, inside newsagents' shops, outside some cinemas, and particularly in some areas of our cities, such as Soho. Unfortunately, there was not time for that measure to become law before the end of that Parliament, and other Bills introduced in the meantime by various hon. Members have not succeeded in reaching the statute book.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough now seeks to remedy past failures to enact legislation on indecent displays. I assure him and the House of the Government's sympathy with his Bill and our support for the broad objectives behind it. However, for reasons which I shall explain a little later, I cannot offer an unqualified commitment to this particular way of dealing with a problem which we recognise, although we are clear that there is a public and social problem which requires remedial treatment.

Public displays of pornographic or indecent material are offensive. Many people are upset by them. We can take the frequency of attempts by Governments or private Members to legislate as a measure of public concern about the public availability of pornography.

In expressing the objection to this material, I think it right to say that the objection is shared by many people who would view with great hostility any restrictions on people's rights to look at whatever matter they wish to see on their own in private. The objection is based not on the concept of harm—even harm to the individual—but on the concept that what one is really objecting to amounts to a pollution of the environment, and it is on grounds of that sort that one may perfectly legitimately intervene.

I differ here from the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), who says that it is simply a question of taste and that one ought not to be dictated to in matters of taste. I think that one can say that if the public distaste and anxiety about matters which are publicly on display is very substantial, in seeking to deal with that anxiety one is not obtruding one's personal preference on other people's personal preferences but, rather, one is seeking to ensure that they exercise their preferences, if they lie in a particular direction, in a way which is not offensive to the majority of their fellow citizens.

I believe, therefore, that a proposal to safeguard the public from affront and offence in places where their normal life takes them deserves sympathy, and the Government are glad to express their support for the principle that ordinary people should have the right to go about their everyday business free from the kind of offence and embarrassment which we encounter all too often in the street or in the kind of shops which we all frequent for our everyday needs.

The principle of adult freedom of choice really has nothing to do with the right to offend the generality of people with the display of indecent material which they have no desire to see.

None the less, I have some reservations about the Bill. Before explaining the reason for our main source of doubt, I shall mention briefly some points which. though of comparative detail and certainly capable of being dealt with in Committee if the House thinks it right to give the Bill a Second Reading, are nevertheless substantial. I think that it may assist the House if I mention them at this stage.

There has been a good deal of discussion of these issues since the Government introduced their Bill in 1973, and my hon. Friend's Bill takes account of some of the points which were raised in debate on the earlier Bills. As a result, we now have before us a Bill which embodies more changes from the first version than any of its predecessors did. Those changes have been made for reasons which are generally sensible and understandable, and I have had the opportunity of discussing some of them with my hon. Friend. But there are still some matters which, if the House decides to give the Bill a Second Reading, we shall have to look at extremely closely.

To take one example, clause 1(3) provides only limited exemptions, and as a result it clearly affects cinemas, live entertainments, art galleries and museums in a way very different from the earlier Bills. The intention previously had been not to apply the legislation to any form of entertainment which people had to choose to see by paying an entrance charge. That would have excluded cinemas entirely, and few people, I suspect, would have challenged that intention, given the legal controls which already exist in relation to films in the form of the law of obscenity and the arrangements for film censorship.

The present Bill, however, exempts places which charge for entry only if, in addition to charging for entry, they also exclude persons under 18 years of age. I think that it would be difficult to defend making the public cinema subject to what amounts, if one does that, to a third layer of control. That is exactly what the Bill does by introducing another condition which has to be satisfied before premises are exempt from its provisions.

The Bill does that, moreover, even though, by virtue of clause 7, theatre plays and ballet would be exempt. It is no longer sufficient to make a charge for the exhibition of a film: the cinema has also to exclude persons under 18. That is exactly what cinemas try to do when they show X films, but the Bill would have the effect of making them subject to a new law on indecency over and above all the existing controls when they show any other category of film.

As I have said, I think that that is a matter which we should look at more closely in Committee.

I am slightly surprised at the point which my hon. and learned Friend makes. Paragraph (a) of subsection (3) relating to indecent displays and the prohibition in respect of persons under the age of 18 must be read in the whole context of the subsection. In other words, it applies only when indecent displays are going on, and it does not apply to all categories of film, which, I understood, was the phrase which my hon. and learned Friend used.

But the question then arises whether a film is or is not indecent, and what one is saying, in effect, is that there should be this further hurdle in addition to the existing form of censorship operated—admittedly, in an informal way—by the British Board of Film Censors, plus the ability of local authorities not to allow a film to be shown and plus the law of obscenity, all of which represent a very special set of restrictions applying in the case of films. If the Bill goes through, in the case of people admitted under the age of 18–which is the case, of course, in respect of all films other than X films—the provisions of the Bill would bite on the cinema, and I think that that is an important point which should be examined.

The question of applying the same rule to live entertainments—that is, other than theatre plays and ballet, which, as I have said, are exempted, and rightly exempted, in my view, by the Bill—should also be considered, even though they are not already subject to the same system of censorship.

Another matter which is in a sense one of detail, though also of considerable importance, relates to art exhibitions and museums. Under the Bill, art exhibitions and museums enjoy a more limited exemption than under previous Bills. The 1973 Government thought that any art gallery or museum established by any public or charitable body should be outside the scope of the Bill, to avoid the particularly difficult arguments about whether works of art are indecent. After discussion in Committee, the then Government came to the conclusion that it was right that the same exemption should apply to commercial galleries as well, since, after all, from the point of view of works or of art, there is not necessarily any significant distinction between the two.

Therefore, the Government tabled on Report an amendment providing that the Bill was not to apply to anything included in the display of any art gallery or museum, or to protect the exhibition that is sometimes mounted in such buildings as public libraries and town halls, inside any building occupied by the Crown or by a local or public authority. The Bill deserts that principle and contains no specific exemption for art galleries or museums. I have to tell my hon. Friend that even those who are broadly sympathetic with the aims of the Bill but who are involved in a perfectly respectable way in the art world view that fact with a very considerable degree of consternation and feel that that is an unsatisfactory position even if one legislated in that direction.

A commercial art gallery might indeed qualify as a shop for the purposes of the Bill and therefore gain exemption by keeping out people under the age of 18 and putting up a warning notice for everyone else. But, paradoxically, although a commercial art gallery might get exemption in that way, a public art gallery could not. It could achieve exemption only by charging for admission and, in addition, excluding young people. It is difficult to defend that provision.

Another innovation in the Bill is clause 2, which was referred to and which creates an offence of admitting to the kinds of premises described in clause 1 any person
"apparently under the age of 18 years".
Comment was made about that. This provision raises a number of problems, some of which have been referred to and which it may be appropriate to examine in greater detail at a later stage but which I should perhaps mention briefly now.

First, the provision appears to be unnecessary and to place in double jeopardy any person who admits a young person to these premises. The reason is that if a person in charge of premises displaying indecent material admits a young person, the exemption from the offence in clause 1 no longer applies, so he can be charged with the offence under clause 1. Therefore, the single act results in the commission of two offences. It is very difficult to see why that is necessary or desirable. However, there are also problems, into which I shall not go now, relating to the circumstances in which an offence under clause 2 is committed.

If the Bill proceeds to Committee, there might be other comments and suggestions which the Government would offer, but I thought it useful to indicate that there are points which, in a sense, are matters of detail but which raise some of the fundamental issues which should at least be drawn to the attention of the House at this stage. None the less, as I have said, the Government are sympathetic to the objectives of the Bill. They are also alive to the public concern to which this Bill and its predecessor is a response.

But I also stated—I said that I would explain what I meant more fully—that the Government commitment to legislation on the lines of this Bill cannot be wholehearted. I am not now referring to the comparatively detailed issues to which I have already referred. What I have in mind is our doubts, not about the social mischief but about the effectiveness of the Bill, which my hon. Friend, in seeking to suggest that it was safe to legislate on these lines, referred to as a consolidating measure bringing existing legislation up to date. Whether it is quite that I am not sure, but, if it is that, there is certainly little reason to believe that it would be all that effective. I ask myself these questions: does it go far enough to meet the real cause of public concern, and, if it does not, are we not building up expectations in an unreasonable and unhelpful way if we legislate in this direction? Quite frankly, my fear is different from that of the hon. Member for Fife, Central. My fear is that the Bill adds too little and that, although it moves in the right direction, it does not move far enough.

At this point I should like to refer to the report of the Williams committee, which was published last week. I should say in parenthesis that some people found it possible to comment on the report before it was published. Such comments may be regarded as of rather limited value and not to reflect credit on the people who feel able to comment in that way.

The committee, which included a judge, a bishop and a former chief constable, was unanimous. Its proposals were broadly in two parts—one relating to restriction, and the use of that as a method of control, and the other to the extent of prohibitions of an absolute kind. It is true that the committee stressed that the recommendations were meant to be considered as a whole. Nevertheless, the ones directly relevant to this Bill propose restrictions on certain kinds of material. Those provisions recommended in the Williams report are, rightly or wrongly, a great deal tougher than anything proposed in the Bill.

Reference was made by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Fife, Central to the question whether pornography causes crime. That is mercifully not something that we need concern ourselves with in considering this Bill and the issues relating to it—thank goodness—because the evidence is not clear-cut. The view formed by the Williams committee on this issue is set out at considerable length and argued cogently in the Bill. Hon. Members must read that and form their own view on whether they find it convincing.

I say that it is not necessary for me to express my view, for what it would be worth, on that issue because the question of the causation of crime would be relevant to a measure designed to prohibit particular kinds of material. However, as this Bill is designed not to prohibit material but merely to ban display, I do not think that the causation of sex crimes or other crimes is relevant to its consideration. Perhaps the House would regard that as fortunate.

Returning more generally to the Williams committee, and to those parts of its recommendations and analysis which impinge more closely on the considerations relevant to the Bill, I for one do not suggest for a moment that the existence of the report should be regarded as an insurmountable barrier to legislation on the lines of this Bill, if that is what the House wishes to do. But I think that we should at least consider very carefully what the Williams committee has to say, and not simply on the basis that the committee recommended restrictions of a rather more stringent kind than are proposed in the Bill. If that were so, one might simply say "Let us go along this road and maybe the rest will follow". With respect, it is not quite as straightforward as that. It is much more a case of saying that the Williams committee was not merely more restrictive but that it actually suggested a rather different approach altogether as to the means of restriction. That would make it difficult to amend the Bill to enable it to embody the Williams recommendations.

Before referring to what Williams said about the indecent displays approach, which is obviously of the greatest relevance to this debate, perhaps I should explain the Government's stance on the Williams report as a whole. We have a genuinely open mind. The Home Secretary made it clear that we want to study the proposals carefully and then take account of public and parliamentary opinion. I am glad to have this opportunity to make it clear that the Government would welcome any representations from the public, Members of Parliament, or representative or interest groups, on the report and its recommendations. We shall study public reaction very carefully before forming conclusions ourselves.

I realise that the hon. and learned Gentleman cannot tell us definitely about a possible debate in the House—that is a job for the Leader of the House—but can he give any indication whether the Government foresee a debate in the House on the Williams report before, let us say, the middle of February or some such time as that?

I am afraid that I cannot, especially if I am tied to a date of that kind. Leaving aside the fact that I do not happen to control the timetable of the House, the timing of any such debate and the desirability of it must depend on how quickly people respond to the Williams report. If there were either unanimity or a very prompt and considered reply from people with a specialised interest in these matters, that would argue for consideration at an earlier stage. Again, the hon. Gentleman no doubt will agree that one of the considerations is whether we want a debate when the Government have formulated their view or before then. These are all matters that we wish to consider.

May I raise another aspect of the same matter which ought to affect some of our thinking if we are to introduce the Williams report into this debate? In the same way as the Minister obviously could not say exactly when there would be a debate, he has held out the hope that there would be a debate at a certain time and that, meanwhile, public opinion can make itself felt. However, that does not sound as though he is in a position to suggest that, even if we all wanted it, legislation on the Williams report would be introduced in the foreseeable future and certainly not necessarily in the lifetime of this Parliament. In the meantime, a particular abuse continues with which the Bill is intended to deal. I for one would not wish to wait an indefinite period in the hope of having generalised legislation if an excellent attempt such as this was being made by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney).

I recognise that that is the view of many hon. Members. I cannot say when we shall have completed our consideration of the report. I cannot say when legislation, if any, will be put forward. I do not see that it should be an indefinite period, but I cannot satisfy the House by giving any kind of promise, and I should be astonished if the House expected me to do so a week after publication of the report. I have to leave it at that.

In considering this Bill, one has to consider not only the time scale of any alternative approach but also whether this measure would deal with the mischief. I hope that I have not mitigated the Government's absolute recognition that there is a mischief, but we have to consider not only the time scale of any alternative approach but whether this Bill would deal with the mischief and also the relevance of the Williams report not only in putting forward an alternative approach but also in its analysis.

Is it not the case that this Bill allows the presentation for sale of pornographic material in the inner section of a shop? If this measure were passed, therefore, it would cause newsagents and others to change the structure of their premises, whereas the Williams committee completely forbids the sale of such material where the material might otherwise be displayed in the external area of the shop. There would be a completely different kind of shop under Williams, whereas under this Bill the same shop would have to be reorganised completely.

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will develop that if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker. However, it relates to what I was about to deal with, which is what the Williams committee had to say on these matters.

The Williams committee was asked to look at the whole subject of obscenity, pornography and cinema licensing, and not just at indecent displays. Its first recommendation was that the existing variety of laws should be scrapped and that a comprehensive statute should start afresh. My impression is that many people would agree with that approach, even though they may differ on whether the Williams recommendations comprise the right basis and have the right balance for such comprehensive new legislation.

The first matter for this House to consider is that, if we go ahead with the present Bill, we should recognise that our work may be overtaken and changed by more comprehensive legislation arising from our collective consideration of the Williams report. On the other hand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Sir F. Bennett) said, in effect, the House may feel that there is an advantage in pressing on with the reform now, whatever wider measures may be introduced later.

However, there is the question not merely of the extent but also of the difference of approach. Therefore, I turn to the question whether this Bill would constitute a useful reform that would really deal with what almost everyone regards as a social abuse and what the Williams report said about the approach embodied in the Bill.

The committee agreed that it was a proper concern of the law—it described it as the "principal object" of the law—to prevent certain kinds of material from causing offence to reasonable people. With that in mind, it examined the indecent displays approach embodied in the Bill. Paragraph 9.8 of the report discusses this issue.

The committee notes that the proposition that the public should be protected against unwilling exposure to offensive material is not new and that it is embodied in existing and long-standing law against indecent public displays. It is worth recalling, after all, that this Bill would not so much introduce a new restriction as modernise provisions in the Vagrancy Act 1824 and other statutes.

The committee then poses the question why there is so much dissatisfaction when there is already a law against indecent display and, if people are so critically offended by displays, why the law is so rarely invoked. The committee answers the question, and I hope that the House will forgive me if I read what I regard as a crucial and penetrating passage from the report:
"So far as pornographic materials are concerned, it is not usually the degree of undress or the nature of the scenes actually visible to the casual public that are very special: often, considered entirely in themselves, they need not differ greatly from much material that is accepted elsewhere. It is the fact that they are obviously associated with pornography that makes them specially offensive. Magazine covers, for instance, are usually comparatively inoffensive compared with what is between the covers. But if legal control is in terms of indecent displays, it is the cover alone which is at issue, since the contents are not on display. It seemed to us, however, that public concern was less about what people actually saw as it was about what they knew it to be. Attempts to stop indecent displays, aimed as they must be just at the intrinsic character of what is shown, are necessarily misdirected, and doomed to disappoint those who put their hopes in them. The problem lies not with indecent displays, but with displays of the indecent, and to control these, one needs to go beyond the content of the mere display itself to the character of the item being displayed."
That is the kernel of the argument.

The Bill is put forward on the basis that it will curb the display of public pornography, of offensive cinema posters and similar manifestations of the commercialisation of sex. The committee says that little of what people see around them and find offensive is by present day standards indecent and that the Bill therefore is doomed to disappoint those who put their hopes in it. We as a House, facing the public concern and interest in these matters, have a great responsibility not to arouse false hopes, and the Bill must be looked at with that in mind.

The Williams committee's analysis offers the view that it is not just the displayed cover of a magazine which people find offensive but the knowledge that it covers material which is more objectionable. The committee says that it is not what people actually see but what they know it to be. It may be that there is room for dispute about what it is that people are sincerely and genuinely upset by, but I should have thought that two strong points at least emerged from the committee's discussion of the problem.

The first was that hardly any of the magazine covers that we are apt to see displayed in newsagents' shops or the posters sometimes displayed outside cinemas showing erotic films are actually indecent under the law, and no fresh definition of indecency is proposed. Therefore, the present Bill would not interfere with those practices.

As I said earlier, would not my hon. and learned Friend agree that this is the fatal flaw in the Bill—that it is called the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill, although the word "indecency" has led to so many problems in the courts that it is roundly condemned by Williams and that a far more useful term is the concept "offensive", which Williams suggests, while the Bill perpetrates all the current problems that we have with the law?

I do not think that I should use such words as "fatal flaw" because I am trying to present a reasonably balanced picture of the problem as I see it. My hon. Friend will no doubt seek to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker.

I was saying that, because of the probable application of the term "indecent" and the fact that the Bill does not propose to alter it, it is unlikely to stop the present newsagents' displays and posters.

Secondly, control on the sale of publications based on their contents—that is what the Williams committee proposes instead—represents a much more stringent control on the availability of pornography than an approach based simply on what is displayed to public gaze. A control of the kind proposed by Williams would undoubtedly affect a large range of magazines whose covers alone would not bring them into conflict with the law on indecent displays. Some people may not wish that kind of restriction. I would face it with equanimity and would regard it as a welcome change.

The Williams committee's argument, therefore, is that, although the Bill, like its predecessors, certainly deals with an important problem and a public mischief, it is unlikely to be effective in dealing with it and that much stronger measures are needed if one accepts the existence of the problem and wants it dealt with. The fact that other parts of the report point in a different direction should not allow the analysis and tough recommendations relating to this problem to be obscured.

Part of the Williams committee's scheme is that a new legal test should replace the test of indecency, which my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) castigates, on which the present law rests and on which the Bill remains based. The view of the committee is that the term "indecent" has outlived its usefulness. I do not find it persuasive to say that the term has remained on the statute book for a century and a half. One wishes many terms removed from the statute book precisely because they have been there for a century and a half. It is for the House, in considering the analysis by Williams, to decide which view to take.

Therefore, the view of the committee is that if the object of control is to avoid offence being caused to ordinary members of the public, the most straightforward legal definition is one that explicitly embodies the test of what is offensive to reasonable people. The committee recognised that that test should be geared not to publications themselves but to their unrestricted availability and went on to propose that the test should refer specifically to the kinds of matter, including violent or horrific matter as well as sexual, which are coveted by it.

We are all concerned about pornography and about the disquiet to which its prevalence gives rise. Whether concern derives from what is displayed, as the Bill implies, or from the knowledge that it is too freely accessible to children as well as to adults in unrestricted circumstances, as the Williams committee suggests, must be a matter of judgment. We must all form our own views.

The Bill is certainly pointed in the right direction. The only harm that it may do is to raise expectations which, for the reasons that I have explained, may not be fulfilled. But it may not do quite as much good as at one time the Government of the day and sponsors of similar legislation hoped.

The Minister has been dealing most effectively with the history of this matter. One other facet of that history is important. The original concept behind the Indecent Displays Bill which I piloted through was

"grossly offensive to the public at large".
Following consultations and conferences at the Home Office, the concept of indecency came back in. Those involved in the consultations were my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner). Therefore, when Lord Carr, as he now is, came in on the matter on the second round, "indecency" came back in and
"grossly offensive to the public"
went out. As a result, my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) has rightly decided that the concept of indecency should be included. The Minister and the Home Office must make up their minds which it is to be, because I feel sure that the sponsor and the Bill's supporters would accept whichever concept was felt to be right, on the best advice. But some decision must be made.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for giving us more of the legislative background to the handling of this matter than I was giving. He is, of course, right. A view has to be taken both as to the test of what is objectionable and as to the means by which it is restricted. I was merely explaining what the Williams committee concluded as to the proper test—which was, what is offensive to reasonable people?

My hon. and learned Friend is right to say that we shall have to consider public reaction to that. The fact that there have been vacillations or oscillations on this matter reflects no discredit on anyone. It shows how difficult, intangible and intractable a problem we face. We now have a new formulation and a new analysis by the Williams report. This is obviously a further aspect of the matter that we should consider.

I agree entirely with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies). I do not think that we are today debating which word should be used: we are debating the idea which has been part of the discussion in this House and with the Home Office over many years. The Minister expressed his doubts about the effectiveness of the Bill. Similar doubts were raised about the effectiveness of the Street Offences Bill in 1959 and about whether it would make any difference because it did not deal with the root cause of the problem of prostitution. We all accept that it did not, but it was most effective in the matter of public display. Would not my hon. and learned Friend accept that there might be a similarity in this case?

I do not think that there is a similarity, because the doubts about the effectiveness of that earlier legislation derived from a question of an analysis of the problem and of how one dealt with it. The doubts that one would have as to the effectiveness of this Bill relate not to one's analysis of mischief but to the Bill's approach. It is a different sort of doubt which in my mind has not been removed.

However, as I have said, the only harm that the Bill does is that it may raise expectations which, for the reasons that I have explained, may not be fulfilled, and it may not do as much good as at one time the Government of the day and sponsors of similar legislation hoped.

The House has to consider whether the Bill will be a first step towards the implementation of more comprehensive and radical proposals, such as those in the Williams report, for reforming this area of the law and for preventing public offence or whether it will distract attention from more comprehensive proposals and whether it is consistent with such proposals. The House must form a view on that. What should be done about the Bill in the light of that analysis is for the House to decide.

The Government are very sympathetic indeed to the Bill's objectives, but, as I have indicated, not all its, provisions will succeed in meeting them. The House needs to look critically at the approach that it offers in the light of the comments of the Williams committee and to consider whether some more stringent approach is now needed or whether it is best to settle for what is on offer here. I am afraid that, in a sense, we are beset by what is an insoluble difficulty of timing. The Williams committee reported very recently. As a Government, we can responsibly respond to its recommendations only after seeing public and informed reactions to its proposals.

Therefore, I am not in a position to say now that we feel that the proposals in the Bill are likely to be overtaken and superseded by more comprehensive reform of the law. All I can do is to give the warmest of welcomes to the thinking, principles and feeling behind the Bill, to outline the limitations of approach and to examine the alternative analysis, and to explain the possibilities that are open to legislate in order to ensure a more stringent and far-reaching solution to the problem.

1.31 pm

On behalf of the Opposition, I should like to extend our congratulations to the hon. Member for Montgomery (Mr. Williams) on his very happy maiden speech. He displayed a balance of mind which, we hope, he will apply to other perhaps more party controversial matters than the one before us today. He probably also deserves to be congratulated on what must be almost a record degree of patience in the House in modern times in delaying from May until November his maiden speech. I am sure that, in the light of what we heard today, all Members will hope that he will not allow such a lapse of time to ensue before he speaks again.

The author of the Bill, the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), also deserves to be congratulated. We always congratulate someone on his luck in the ballot. I do not quite understand why we should express it that way. I should like to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the manner in which he presented the Bill, which was very clear and helpful to the House in regard to the general principles behind it, as well as on the individual clauses. However, in the light of the discussion, the House owes a debt of gratitude to the speech of the Minister of State, which was a model of the helpful contribution that a Minister should make in consideration of a Private Member's Bill on a controversial subject such as this.

This matter is very important because, first, a small number of people are deeply affected by the display of pornographic material and a large number of people are slightly offended, or at least inconvenienced, in terms of not wishing to expose their families, and so on, to the display of pornographic material. Secondly, it is important because the whole issue affects individual liberty in the sense that we are proposing to restrict what a person may do with written or pictorial material, but more importantly in the sense that we might be creating great doubt about whether a person doing a certain thing would be prosecuted for it.

We all know that there is that doubt at the moment with regard to indecency and obscenity. I would put that point in this way. Let us imagine a newsagent who at present displays certain magazines outside his shop. A number of Members have talked of shops doing that and seem to assume that if the Bill were to become law those magazines—and we do not want to advertise the things by mentioning particular names—would have to be removed to an inside room, subject to the controls mentioned in the Bill.

I submit that the newsagent would be very much in doubt whether, under the Bill, he would be required to move any particular magazine that one might name. If that is so, it is not just a question of introducing legislation that would be ineffective; it is also a question of imposing upon the citizen the risk of prosecution without his having any very clear idea whether he was committing a criminal offence.

Thirdly, this is important because the law at the moment is complex in that there are laws relating to what can be sent through the post, to what can be admitted at the customs point into the country, to display and to the very production of material. Therefore, that is a complex set-up with different laws applied to different things which, in principle, ought to be tidied up as a whole.

Fourthly, there is the problem that the definitions used in this whole complex subject are obscure, to say the least. The words "obscenity", "harmful", and so on, and even more the word "indecent", are all ones which, though traditionally interpreted, have not been distilled to any precise meaning. If that applies to any one of those words more than to the others, it is to "indecent" and "indecency".

The author of the Bill has acknowledged that it is a modest one, dealing only with display and not with the production, selling or reading of particular materials. I think that most people would agree that it is the display of pornographic material which the public find most offensive, and one guesses—though one can really never know—that the majority of the public do not wish to see much of the material, if any, prohibited from being produced or perhaps sold.

The Labour Party as such takes no position on this Bill, but in considering how to vote today Members should take the following considerations into account. First, the hon. Member for Peterborough, when going through the Bill, particularly in response to interventions, acknowledged that there were points that would have to be sorted out in Committee. Of course, that applies to every Bill, and it is not a reason in itself for not giving a Bill a Second Reading. But some of the points that he acknowledged, and which were raised with him, are points that rather go to the heart of the Bill, particularly the question of definition, and the Minister has pointed out quite a minefield of difficulties that will ensue.

Secondly, we cannot ignore the fact—of course we shall not—that it was only last week that the Williams report came out. I think that there are probably few Members who have had time to read that report from cover to cover, even among those who are taking part in this debate. I would be happy to throw myself into that number if it means reading it absolutely from cover to cover.

I should like to pay a tribute to the Williams committee for helping all those involved in deciding what to do about legislation. Whether or not one agrees with particular features of the report—I am not sure whether I agree with the particular feature which the Minister of State picked out as the kernel of one of its points—it must be the basis for all future action in this area. It is a comprehensive report. It would, if followed and implemented, if necessary with changes, allow us to clear up the complexity and obscurity which now exists. We need time to consider that report. We need time to find out what individuals and interests outside the House think about it. We need time to debate the report.

I quite accept the Minister's statement that it is impossible to be precise about when the House might debate the report. There is the question whether the Government, at least provisionally, should come to a view about it before coming to the House, because people are bound to ask the Government what they think, and they will get very annoyed if the Government do not know what they think.

If the Government make up their mind before bringing the Williams report to the House for debate, we shall complain about that too. They will have to come between those two, but I suggest that somewhere around February is the time beyond which we should not go for a debate on the report, whatever the state of the Government's thinking at that time. We would expect at that time to have some indication from the Government of what they think of the main points in the report.

I turn to what I regard as the greatest difficulty with the Bill as it is at the moment. This, as others have said, is the definition of indecency, which is not in the Bill, as the author quite openly acknowledged. The Bill is, as it were, an inverted pyramid based upon an obscurity—the definition of "indecent". In effect, all that it does is to provide for the system of the back shop and to rest the division between what can be in the front shop and what can be in the back shop, if I may put it in that way, upon the word "indecent". The courts would have to rely entirely upon the already established definitions of that word, in so far as any exist, to decide what would have to go into the back shop.

We do not have a statutory definition of indecency in this country. We have, in the 1889 Act, not a definition but a declaration that certain things are indecent, but that is not an exclusive definition of the term. It is saying only that certain advertisements about venereal disease are, subject to a qualification, indecent. That does not mean that there are not many other things that are indecent.

The Bill will make provisions only about having to pay to get into the back shop, about having to put up a notice to prevent people from going into that area without notice, and will not deal with the principal matter, which is to try to draw the line between the material that is to be subjected to this control and the material that will be free of it. Past experience indicates that there can be enormous difficulties if a Bill is constructed with the understanding that one can leave until later, or leave to the courts or some other means, the most difficult issue involved in the whole operation. If one cannot solve the most difficult issue, perhaps one should not bring the Bill forward. I repeat that as the Bill stands at the moment newsagents and others will simply not know what sort of magazines, pictures and so on they will have to subject to the controls provided in the Bill.

I hope that those points will be taken into consideration by Members when deciding how to vote. It is surely clear that a very large proportion of Members, and a large proportion of the public outside, believe that something ought to be done to remove from the streets, from the outside of shops, and so on, those displays which so many find either indecent or inconvenient.

As the Minister said, we agree that the Bill is pointing in the right direction. We are doubtful whether it is right to prejudge decisions taken on the much wider area dealt with in the Williams report. We are extremely doubtful whether the Bill, as presently constructed, would have the effect that the author claims.

We hope that early in the new year we shall have a debate on the much wider issue and then go forward with Government-sponsored legislation on the whole question, in the direction that the hon. Member for Peterborough is pointing but not necessarily by his means.

Bearing in mind what the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) is saying about there being a debate in February, or soon after that, with the opportunity for the House to express an opinion, and bearing in mind also that, quite clearly, clause 1 is capable of amendment if the Committee wished to change it to, for example, "grossly offensive to reasonable people "or" offensive to reasonable people", does he agree that a Committee is ideally suited to deal with the matter, having regard to the long background to it? In those circumstances, does not he think that it would be prudent to give the Bill a Second Reading?

The Bill will not remove from the law other relevant definitions. The whole gist of the recommendations of the Williams report is that "indecent" should be removed not only from the law relating to displays but from the law generally on pornography. It is one thing to do that as a general matter, clearing up the whole area; it is another to employ a definition other than indecency for a particular purpose. That is a consideration worth taking into account.

As the Minister has acknowledged, we have a problem of timing. It would have been far better if the Bill had come either a year ago or perhaps a year later. Even if it had been coming later, we would have to bear in mind that, in a minefield such as this, with all its complexities, it is perhaps better for legislation to come forward from the Government than for even a brave and well-intentioned private Member to try to deal with part of the area in isolation.

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I join my colleague from across the Gangway, the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford), in welcoming the Bill. I welcome the fact that one of Ulster's stuff has introduced it to the House, albeit not a representative of an Ulster constituency. I know that there are many Members who wish to take part in the debate, so I will limit my speech to a bare minimum.

I have listened carefully to the arguments put from both sides of the House. There is general agreement that one cannot legislate morality. That is impossible. The House has a duty to deter. It has a duty to guard the young of the nation until such times as they can make a choice. There is no doubt that the Bill does not savour of censorship. It does not attempt to go into the minefield that has been described by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham). I acknowledge that it is a minefield. We are aware that this sort of legislation always bristles with difficulties. I always find in debates that there is a difference of opinion in defining the particular crime or misdemeanour that the Bill wishes to deal with.

We will always have the problem that, at the end of the day, it will be the courts that will make the decision whether something is grossly offensive, whether it is indecent and so on. The sponsor of the Bill, the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), was wise in not trying to define it. He would then have found himself in even greater difficulties. Perhaps it is wiser that the courts should be left to define it.

If, as the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) said, Members of the House or of the Committee feel that there could be a change in the title of the Bill—and, as the sponsor of the Bill has indicated, what he is aiming at is not to defend a particular set of words but to achieve the end he had in mind—I think that the House would do well to give the Bill a Second Reading. I say that speaking purely from a Northern Ireland point of view, because I could not in this House give illustrations in support of the need for the Bill to become law on this side of the water. But we have a very sad situation developing in Northern Ireland, and it comes about because of the pressure that is already on the police force of our country.

It seems that Northern Ireland has become the happy hunting ground for people who want to dump this type of literature. We know that the police have difficulties under the present laws in handling the public display of this material. A note of concern should be struck in the debate, in that there seems to be an increase in the supply of it. We see a weakening of attitude even in publica- tions that a few years ago would never have carried such material. We now seem to have the thin edge of the wedge. We should take warning as to what will happen it things are allowed to go on in this way.

The first point to ensure in sponsoring legislation is that there is a need for it, and that need should be demonstrated. I do not think that anyone in the debate has advanced the proposition that there is not such a need. Everyone has agreed that there is a crying need for such a measure. We know that the subject will come up for further discussion, that the Government will have to face their responsibilities and that this House will have to face its responsibilities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough, in sponsoring the Bill, has been very wise in not proposing major legislation. He has proposed instead a modest Bill to deal with a continuing problem. I am concerned that before this House has decided to do something the corruption resulting from these practices will have taken its toll of the community.

We have to ask whether the Bill will deal adequately with the problem. I do not think that my hon. Friend would claim that it will deal absolutely adequately with the problem. Indeed. I do not think that any measure ever put through this House or any other legislative assembly has been able to deal absolutely adequately with a problem. But the Bill is certainly the first step in tackling the problem of indecent display.

Should people who do not want to be exposed to this type of literature have the freedom not to be exposed to it? That is the core of the argument today. I do not know whether anyone in this House would care to defend the proposition that people should be exposed to the display of this type of literature. But will the Bill deal adequately with the problem? Certainly there is at least provision to put the material out of the way. That appears to be the main aim of the Bill.

The measure has been described by the Opposition Front Bench as a back-shop Bill, and perhaps that is true. But at least people going down the public streets or appearing in public places would not, as a result of the Bill's passage, be subject to exposure to indecent material. If that were to be the result of the Bill, it would be very helpful.

With regard to the question whether the Bill would be effective, we know that similar arguments have taken place over other measures. Some hon. Members have argued that they would not work; others have argued that they would. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I do not think that any of us could say anything about the effectiveness of the measure until it became law and until the police had the opportunity to take action along the lines indicated in the Bill. If the Bill did not achieve at least part of the objects of the sponsor, there would be the opportunity to amend it or to bring in further legislation.

I would be sad today if this House were to divide on the issue. I recognise that some hon. Members may have grave doubts about the effectiveness of the Bill. Lawyers are always able to refer to certain points of difficulty which might have to be decided in the courts, in which they would be representing their clients. However, I believe that the Bill deserves to have a Second Reading and to go into Committee for examination. There would always be an opportunity to reject it on Third Reading. I should like to see the Bill become law. I hope that hon. Members will give the Bill their blessing so that it may go into Committee.

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I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for intervening in the discussion. Having spent three months in Committee on a similar measure in 1973, I had no wish to see it again.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) is not present. He introduced the Bill with a good deal of skill and charm, and I should very much wish to give him a fair wind if I thought that it would be desirable so to do. I am anxious, in this intervention, to persuade the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the Bill in the light of arguments which are very similar to those advanced by the Minister, who has also departed. If I may say so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is becoming a standard practice for Ministers to intervene in the debate on a Private Member's Bill at an early stage and then to disappear. I do not think it is desirable that that should be so.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) will be back shortly. It is not true to say that he has disappeared from the debate.

I am glad to hear that. I am sorry that I appear to have entered the debate in the middle of the Minister's luncheon adjournment.

I want to press the argument that the Williams report is a good deal tougher in relation to the mischief that the Bill is designed to meet. If it is tougher, it is undesirable that we should allow the Bill to go through. I know that someone might say "If it is tougher, why not let the Bill go through and either improve it in Committee, in the light of the Williams report, or at any rate get it on to the statute book, so that we are able to do something about the problem?" That argument seems to be superficially attractive. I want to go a little deeper into the point made by the Minister that the Bill, although superficially attractive, is incapable of being effective, in the light of the recommendations of the Williams committee.

The reason why the Williams committee report is tougher than the Bill is that the Bill does not seek to deal with the harmfulness of pornography. I say to the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) that his arguments about the harmful effects of pornography are, in a sense, irrelevant to the consideration of the Bill, because the Bill would still allow pornographic material to be sold. The Bill is simply an attempt to get over the nuisance of having it displayed in places where people might find it offensive.

The Bill does not do anything about restricting sales. Williams goes further and would put an effective ban on the sale and production of certain kinds of pornography, although only certain kinds. It says that for the great mass of pornography it is sufficient simply to restrict the sale, and in that sense the aspirations of Williams and of this Bill are similar, although the way in which they tackle the matter is different.

The effect of the Bill would be that material could not be displayed so that it could be seen from the street, and certain kinds of material would have to be in an inner sanctum, with a division between the outer and inner shop, marked by some notice to restrict entrance to people over the age of 18. The softer pornography could be displayed in the outer shop, with the harder kind in the inner shop, and there would be a close nexus between the two. People would be invited in to see the softer pornography and, in a sense, be led on to the possibility of seeing the harder kind. Anyone who has been in an American shop which does just that knows that that is so in the American ideal, and Williams therefore came out against that form of separation of shops.

Williams recommends that restricted material—and that is defined under Williams as anything that would be unreasonable to a reasonable person—can only be displayed in a shop that has no outside advertisement except its name, in which only persons over 18 can enter and which is not connected to any other kind of shop. The sort of shop is clearly defined. It is designed as a sex shop and has nothing on the outside to attract people in, and they cannot walk into the outer shop for a newspaper and disappear into the inner shop. The Williams approach is much tougher than that in the Bill, and in addition it limits people moving from one situation to another.

This Bill would allow newsagents and others to change the structure of their shops and invest a great deal of money in refitting, and, if Williams' proposals were enacted in a year or so, they would again have to change the structure completely. That would not be fair to people in that kind of business, although some hon. Members do not want to be fair to them, and I understand that. However, it is not right for Parliament to go down one road one year and down an entirely different road the next.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's argument and am disposed towards it. However, is he saying that, should the sponsor of the Bill be willing, it would be impossible to adapt the Bill to take cognisance of his point?

:I cannot see any way of redrafting the Bill to meet the recommendations of Williams without completely de-gutting the Bill. In addition, I suggest that Williams is a package. There will obviously be certain matters that hon. Members disagree with, and there are some that I disagree with, but Williams cannot be legislated by degree. The legislation cannot go only a certain way down the road indicated by the hon. Member for Peterborough and stop there for this year, and next year go a bit further down the road or down a slightly different road. Even if that sort of part instalment of Williams were contemplated through the Bill, I believe that it would be difficult to redraft it in that way.

I do not know whether a Bill will be contemplated to embrace all the recommendations of Williams, but I do not see that happening. I therefore disagree that it would be impossible to enshrine one important facet of Williams in this legislation.

Although I do not wish to be deflected from my main point, I must say that Williams was set up because the Law Commission was considering the whole question of conspiracy. One facet that it had to consider was conspiracy to pervert public morals, and it made certain recommendations of a limited nature. Its recommendations were incorporated in the Criminal Law Act, except for that area of conspiracy to pervert public morals. I was a Minister at that time, and we thought it unwise to start to legislate in the way recommended by the Law Commission without having a total review, and therefore Williams was set up.

I expect that in due course, if the Government accept Williams, they will legislate for the whole structure of obscenity in one Bill. It would be silly not to do so. The whole idea of Williams is to get over all the difficulties of the Vagrancy Acts, the Obscene Publications Acts and the other definitions and have a sensible and coherent policy about the publication of indecent material. Williams is as good a compromise on the difficulties as one could find, and, although I have difficulty with some issues, I generally support it.

The Bill allows trial by jury and Williams does not, so Williams has a considerably tougher approach there. If deci- sions are left to magistrates, and particularly stipendiary magistrates, it is unlikely that we shall have the results that have been obtained with prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act. The hon. Gentleman wants to dissociate himself from Mrs. Whitehouse, but she is generally thought to be the spiritual mother of the Bill. In times past, even she thought that it would be useful to restrict prosecutions to summary offences before a magistrate, which is what Williams does.

The hon. Gentleman can be reassured that it is not a softer approach to wait for Williams but quite a tough one. As the Minister pointed out, the Williams recommendations are likely to be more effective in dealing with the mischief that we all feel exists. I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to reconsider whether it is necessary to go further with his Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) made it clear that the Bill did not have much hope of going through. Is it necessary for us to continue to write to our constituents regularly to the effect that not only will the Bill not get through but that it would be unwise to allow it to do so? Surely it is better to accord with the Minister's recommendation that these matters are better considered in the light of the total view of the Williams report.

Let me make three points to the hon. Gentleman. First, while the Minister talked about the more stringent controls contained in the Williams report, he made no commitment to introduce legislation. Secondly, I am not prepared to withdraw my Bill. I have been in this place for only a short time, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but, with the rest of my new colleagues, I have already learnt that all sorts of surprising things happen in this House. I put nothing beyond the bounds of possibility. Thirdly, I should be loth to rob the hon. Gentleman of the opportunity to communicate with his constituents. That is a salutary experience for us all and not one of which he should be deprived.

I am always reluctant to be deprived of any opportunity of contact with my constituents. However, I am prepared to forgo the luxury of having to answer many letters on the subject, knowing that the Bill will not get through. However surprising are the things that happen in this place, it seems unlikely that the Bill will get through.

In those circumstances, would it not be beter to give a fair wind to the Minister by withdrawing the Bill on the understanding that the matter will be legislated upon by the Government in due course? The Minister clearly indicated that he wanted to deal with the mischief in a tougher way than by the measures contained in the Bill. On the basis of that approach, we, could have a fairly widespread—if not unanimous—agreement in the House. Surely that is a better way of getting the Minister to come down in favour of the proposals than to persist in a Bill which the Minister will ultimately have to say that the Government cannot accept. As a matter of tactics—I put it on that basis—that would be a better approach.

I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South. There is a real problem when we consider the harm that is done by material of this sort—although we are not considering that specific matter today. It is a problem that has caused me considerable difficulty. I understand the hon. Gentleman's motivation well, as a fellow Methodist, and I understand why he finds pornography so unattractive. However, to say, as he did, that there are powerful images that can be congealed in the mind which suddenly flash upon one's consciousness and dictate actions is to approach the matter rather like the missionary in C. S. Forester's "The African Queen". So many changes of attitude about sex and the use of the human body in sex have taken place over the years that nobody can properly say that we should dictate by law the attitude that our fellow citizens should accept.

The hon. Gentleman's view may be accepted by many, but there are many others for whom the sort of images that he finds so distasteful and powerful are a normal expression of sexual relationships. Therefore, it is impossible to say that one thing is bound to be harmful and that another is not. What the hon. Gentleman means is that some people may be willing to do things which he would not wish to do. Whether that is harmful or not is, to some extent, a subjective judgment. I agree that it would be absurd to argue that nothing is harmful and that we can never have pornography that is not harmful. That is why I do not go along with some of the groups which are active in opposing any form of pornography legislation. I find it difficult, as does the hon. Gentleman, to accept that while we have good literature that improves the mind we cannot have pornographic literature that harms it. There must be some harm. The difficulty for the law is to know what is harmful in the sense of dictating action which the community as a whole believes to be socially wrong.

The hon. Member for Peterborough argued that he was perfectly content to say that pornography leads to sex crimes. If there was a clear correlation between the two, I would say that pornography was clearly harmful. The trouble is that the evidence is so difficult to muster. We can feel that that might be so, but it is not yet possible to argue conclusively that it is. Indeed, the Williams committee strongly argued the contrary. For that reason, I have always found it difficult to see where the law should go on obscene publications which are regarded as being totally harmful and which should be banned. I would go as far as the Williams committee went, in that the sort of things that it indicated as being necessary for a total ban should be banned. Therefore, I find that to be an acceptable compromise. Equally, for that reason, I should rather that we legislated on the Williams report as a whole than by this piecemeal method.

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I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), having listened to the speech of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon), will not take undue notice of any of the advice given in it, in particular the suggestion that he should withdraw his Bill. If he did withdraw his Bill on tactical or any other grounds, it would deeply disappoint many of his colleagues and many people in the country who have indicated their support for him.

The final treatise of the hon. Member for York was totally irrelevant to the Bill. The comparability of sexual behaviour is not dealt with in the Bill, nor does the Bill attempt to deal with it. The Bill deals with a particular aspect of pornography—its public display and, therefore, the interference in the freedom and conscience of ordinary people. Those people, whether they like it or not, and whatever behaviour they wish to adopt, have the material thrust upon them and, even more important, upon their children. Whatever the merits of the hon. Gentleman's final treatise, it has no relevance to the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough said that there were various grades of support among hon. Members and those outside. First, he hoped that his view would strike a chord of sympathy and support on ethical, moral or social grounds. I agree with that. He also hoped that people would be impelled to support him because they would go along with the wishes of the majority of those in their constituencies and in the country as a whole. After all, that is not undemocratic. I agree with that idea as well.

There is another consideration that I am not ashamed to support while agreeing with my hon. Friend's two introductory suggestions. I believe that society in the United Kingdom has reached the stage where it says "So far is far enough and it is time we halted and even turned back on the road towards the completely permissive society." I believe that that view is widespread and that it has nothing to do with party political allegiance—it is right across the board. In history, we can see the moods that exist after a trend has gone on for a certain time and a revulsion against it springs up. There is now a demand for a revulsion against any further drift in our society towards the development of what has been called the permissive society.

Over a decade ago Mr. Roy Jenkins, when he was Home Secretary, made one of the less apt remarks of his career. He went on record as stating boldly that the permissive society was a civilised society. I have been in touch with him several times since then and have never been able to get him to reaffirm or deny that proposition in the light of developments in this country since he first made his comment. However, I doubt whether in his heart or mind he, or anyone else, could seriously think that the permissive society had developed into a civilised society. I say again that I am making no party political point.

It is claimed that there is no positive correlation between sex crimes and pornography. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough quoted some evidence from Denmark, and I believe that there is a correlation, though I may be wrong. In any case, I do not believe that in order to do something that is right one must produce conclusive evidence that something is not only wrong but damaging.

There has been a general lowering of moral and ethical standards and religious values in post-war Britain and elsewhere. Crimes, including sex crimes, have increased in the same period. Whether one fact relates to the other does not necessarily have to be proved to make valid our consideration of whether action needs to be taken. Those of us who believe that something should be done do not have to prove in legally conclusive terms that a set of causes leads to a set of effects. I do not need to argue that in arguing that reform is necesssary.

I shall not go into detailed arguments. I commend the Bill on the basis that we all know that an unacceptable social evil exists in our midst, namely, the public portrayal, against the free choice of parents and children, of pornographic material. That is enough for me to say that something needs to be done.

I am not prepared to wait until the Government have issued a White Paper on the Williams report, the House has debated it and all the other procedures required to get something on the statute book have been undertaken. The Government's programme in Parliament may not be to the liking of Labour Members, but we know that it will be crowded and it is deceptive to suggest that if my hon. Friend's Bill is defeated the social evil will continue for only a few months or even a year before steps are taken to put it right.

If my hon. Friend even inhibits, without preventing altogether, the social evil in our midst for only a month or a year, he will have performed a useful service at the start of his career in the House. The hon. Member for York said that we could not enact the Bill and the recommendations of the Williams committee because they went in different directions. He said that we could not ask the people of this country to go down one road now and later to go down another. My God, how naïve! I have been an hon. Member for more than a quarter of a century, and political parties have been doing just that in political, economic and social affairs throughout that time.

If the recommendations of the Williams committee are approved and we find more effective ways of stopping this and a number of other social evils, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough will be the first to agree to the repeal or any necessary amendment of his measure. At least, he will have done something rather than nothing. He will never have any regrets, even if his legislation later becomes embodied in a stricter Act.

I was disappointed in the Minister's response. No one knows better than he that our people want such a measure. They made clear during the election campaign, to candidates of all political parties, that they want something done to combat overt pornography.

It is not a bad idea sometimes not to think too deeply about all the administrative pros and cons of drawing up Bills. That is a matter for a Standing Committee and not the House. It is also not a bad idea to show that we respond to public opinion and for us at least to make an effort to meet the genuine demand of the majority of people in this country that something should be done. It is no counter-argument to say that people want action in other areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough cannot do everything in one Bill. With the co-operation of the House, he will at least be taking one limited step forward.

An old Chinese proverb from long before Chairman Hua says that every long march begins with a small step. If my hon. Friend takes another small step in addition to the couple that he mentioned that have been taken in recent years in the same direction, he will have made his mark in the history of the House.

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If pornography is offensive, which it is to many, so is censorship, and we should be careful before putting on the statute book any other measure dealing with obscenity that is not properly thought out and carefully framed.

I say at the outset that I accept the intentions of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), but the history of obscenity legislation is disastrous. I do not want to give advice to the hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon) was chastised for doing so—but my experience as a Minister in the Law Officers' Department was that prosecuting obscenity cases was expensive and the problems involved were formidable.

There is a marked difference in attitude towards the Obscene Publications Act between magistrates and juries. Publications seized by the police that would be subject to conviction by magistrates were invariably acquitted by juries. The result was that after an expensive jury trial, weeks of legal arguments, counsel being consulted and the Director of Public Prosecutions giving his advice, a publication would be acquitted on the ground that the jury did not consider that it depraved or corrupted.

Either we accept that a jury is composed of a cross-section of public opinion or we do not. I assure the hon. Member for Peterborough that many of the magazines that the DPP considered, after careful thought, should be prosecuted were magazines that would deeply offend the hon. Gentleman. They would offend many hon. Members. However, juries up and down the country have acquitted. I am not sure that the argument that a vast body of public opinion considers pornography to be evil and a real danger to the fabric of society is correct.

Some hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford), agreed that they would be prepared to change the definition of "indecency" to one of offensiveness based on the definition in the Williams report. That may or may not be possible. The Bill, as framed, is virtually unamendable.

Even if that were possible, we would have on the statute book three different criteria by which obscene publications were judged. There would be a definition which would apply solely to articles on display. There would be a definition of "indecency", which would cover publications coming into the country, and there would still be the definition of "deprave and corrupt", which would apply to the contents of a publication. That definition would apply to the same publication which was banned from sale because it was considered indecent. That will create further anomalies and further expenses in the courts. As the Minister rightly pointed out, it will also disappoint. I do not think that the House, however well intentioned and well meaning, should put on the statute book a measure which will raise expectations and then cause disappointment.

Nothing has caused a greater flood of letters into my former Department than obscenity. If there was a conviction, there would be an outcry from libertarians. They would say that it was an appalling form of censorship and that the Director should not have prosecuted. If there was an acquittal, there would be letters of shock and horror from those people who could not understand how a jury could acquit publications which they genuinely regarded as offensive. A dilemma therefore exists.

Many years ago, juries would have convicted the same publications as they acquit today. That is illustrative of the difficulty of legislating on the subject. I agree that it would be preferable to wait until the Government were in a position to present a Bill based upon the Williams report. There must be uniformity. As I understand it, the sponsor of the Bill is giving the right of jury trial. That is right on libertarian grounds. It is right, particularly in a case where the prosecution does not have to prove intent, that it should be an absolute offence. We should be careful before we place on the statute book legislation covering absolute offences.

The intent of the newsagent who displays a certain publication should be considered, particularly when, in his own mind, it is difficult to decide what is or what is not indecent. What will happen to the Bill and to public opinion of its efficacy when juries over and over again may, and probably will, acquit that same publication, and the publication is again put on sale?

The magistrates' definition may vary from court to court and from area to area. In Sheffield, for instance, a publication may have been cleared by magistrates and remain on sale, whereas in Accrington, my constituency, the publi- cation may be regarded by the magistrates as indecent.

In the circumstances, it would be wrong for the House to pass the Bill. I do not suggest that we should oppose it. It would not be in our best interests if it were opposed. But if it is passed we will have yet another unworkable Act on the statute book. It would cause confusion and disrespect for the law. On a subject about which public taste varies so much, the definitions must be right.

The Williams report contains sensible and all-embracing proposals. We must deal with the whole subject of obscenity, not just one aspect, albeit an aspect which causes offence. If we deal with one aspect alone, there will be further anomalies and the legislation will not be respected either by the public or by the courts. Parliament will once again have failed in its duty.

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I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye. As I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak, I shall be brief.

It is the duty of Governments to protect public morality. I endorse the views expressed so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Sir F. Bennett) when he said that our duty today is to cast our opinion across the general principle of the Bill and to worry about the mechanics, the nuts, bolts and details, in Committee.

Is not there scope for my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State to discuss with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment what can or cannot be displayed inside a shop? Could not the details be implemented within the Town and Country Planning Acts?

I endorse the views of right hon. and hon. Members who have expressed their congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) on the cogency, moderation and persuasiveness with which he presented his case.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay. How should we deal with obscenity, indecency and immorality? I approach the subject as the father of young children. My grandparents tried to inculcate into me a sense of value and behaviour, both public and private, which I wish to pass on to my children. I am endeavouring to look at the problem through the eyes of those children. They have foisted upon them involuntarily, and they have foisted upon them subliminally, as the hon. Member for Belfast, South(Mr. Bradford) rightly said, attitudes and standards which they do not understand and do not choose to accept. Therefore, I look at the problem through the eyes of a schoolboy, which I was not many years ago, who attained his majority—I use "majority" in the temporal as opposed to the political sense—when the permissive 1960s burst forth into flower.

I ask myself and hon. Members on both sides of the House to consider four questions. First, have our moral standards risen or fallen in the last 20 years? If they have fallen, why? Secondly, has man's conduct towards woman become more chivalrous and gallant meanwhile? If not, why not? Thirdly, has our national vocabulary become enhanced or devalued and debased by an almost blind acceptance of certain words which Mr. Kenneth Tynan first uttered on television 10 or more years ago? Let us remember that, when he did, the nation gasped. But how many children today are dancing and running unashamedly and uninhibitedly across playgrounds using such words which are the verbal expression of photographic descriptions on the front covers of the magazines which we are debating today?

Fourthly, have the streets of our cities and larger towns been made cleaner, more wholesome and more attractive by the vision of bookshops and other shops catering for "specialist tastes" thrusting their lurid and wanton material before the eyes of an unsuspecting and largely innocent public, both young and old alike? In short, are we a more peaceful and less violent society than we were 20 years ago? If not, should we not be asking ourselves: do not pornography and its underlying message of sadism and violence and those who peddle pornographic material for vast financial gain have a great responsibility for our more violent and discontented state of affairs today?

It was The Times on 3 September 1970 which stated:
"Pornography always has in it somewhere a hatred of man, both of man as a human being able to respond to ideals and of man as an animal. Pornography is not an affirmative, but a denial of life, and commercial pornography is a denial of life for the sake of money."
In the light of that quotation and subsequent facts revealed in police corruption cases recently, I believe that we should be addressing ourselves today to the basic principle, not to the definition or the mechanics of how such a Bill, which I am sure commands widespread support throughout the House and the country at large, should be defeated or talked out by default. It is on that ground that I have one small criticism of the Bill. It is that the penalties in clause 5 are not punitive enough.

My belief in the view that indecent displays need to be controlled more rigidly than they are today is strengthened by the words of Joseph Stalin:
"By making readily available drugs of various kinds, by giving a teenager alcohol, by praising his wildness, by strangling him with sex literature and advertising, this psycho-political preparation can create the necessary attitude of chaos, idleness and worthlessness into which can then be cast the solution which will give the teenager complete freedom everywhere."
Stalin went on to say:
"If we can effectively kill the national pride and patriotism of just one generation, we will have won that country. Therefore, there must be continued propaganda abroad to undermine the loyalty of the citizens in general, and the teenagers in particular."
We have not yet travelled down that road. Let us hope that we never do. But let us not by default march one small step towards that road simply by being diverted from the mechanics of not being able to support the Bill in detail today.

In those halcyon but far-off schooldays to which I referred earlier, one read magazines such as "Health and Efficiency" and "Spick and Span". They were to be found tucked furtively into the satchel and concealed craftily under every teenager's desk top. But, compared with the corrosive glossies about which we are talking today, they were as William Shakespeare is to Mickey Spillane.

Just as our eyes have, sadly, become accustomed to the bad taste displayed on some bookstalls over the last 15 years—let us acknowledge this, because hon. Members representing London constituencies are present today—so have London and other large cities become the soft centre for hard pornography. London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds have become the pornographic peep-show of the Western world. In its wake the whole business of pornography runs the risk of affecting society, as the Williams report puts it,
"with a disregard for decency and respect for others, a taste for the base, contempt for responsibility and what is sometimes called cultural pollution."
Whether one stands to the Left, Centre or Right of the political spectrum, can we not all agree with D. H. Lawrence—hardly a prude by anybody's standards—when he said:
"I would censor genuine pornography, rigorously. You can recognise it by the insult it offers, invariably, to sex, and to the human spirit. Pornography is the attempt to insult sex. This is unpardonable."
Can we not also agree with Dr. Benjamin Spock—well known for his liberal views generally—when he said:
" I think such works"
"are unhealthy for society because they assault the carefully constructed inhibitions and sublimations of sexuality and violence that are normal for all human beings and that are essential in the foundations"
—the necessary foundations—
"of civilisation."
It is because I believe that we need to restore a sense of dignity, decency, morality and pride to our national life, and because I think that the large majority of the British public—not least amongst the teenage community—would endorse these sentiments, that the Bill should receive a wholehearted Second Reading this afternoon for the sake of our consciences, our constituents and, not least, our children and generations to come.

2.47 pm

As a co-sponsor of the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill, I am delighted to be able to take this opportunity of commending the measure to hon. Members on both sides of the House. There is a clear advantage in all-party support on matters such as this, which can have a fundamental effect on many families throughout the land.

The central theme running through the Bill is one of responsibility—responsibility both to the people of this country, particularly those in their more formative years below the age of 18, and by the people of this country, particularly those who are involved in the sale or the display of such matter. It must be emphasised time and again, so that there can be no danger of misrepresentation, that the Bill in no way seeks to end the sale or display of this material or restrict its use in private. Its sole purpose is to make certain that individuals do not have to be exposed to items which, in the experience of many, may be considered to be offensive.

I have a firm belief in the concept of freedom—in particular freedom of the individual—but one can never escape from the essential corollary to that, which is responsibility. Every freedom entails a responsibility, and the aim of the Bill is to ensure that freedom exercised with regard to indecent matters has that necessary responsibility reinforced. When one talks about freedom to indulge in certain activity—in this instance, to purchase or to view a certain type of material—one should equally remember freedom from having to indulge in that same activity—in this respect, not having to be subject to those same items. Responsibility should therefore be part and parcel of the same approach. The Bill seeks to enforce that recognition to ensure that such a safeguard is not overlooked.

Perhaps this measure has most to offer in affording protection to children. Parents generally are keen to allow their children to develop in an atmosphere which allows for a gradual understanding of the full facts of the community in which they live. True judgment comes only with maturity. It is essential that the provisions of the Bill which endeavour to remove indecent material from the environment in which minors move should be seen as particularly important.

The significance of this aspect of the Bill is, I trust, understood by all hon. Members. It is surely of fundamental value to the future condition of our society that the next generation should be protected in this way. There must be full support for the family unit and for the right of parents to bring up their children in their own way. Thus, the clauses which provide for the shielding of young people from indecent material are essential.

The Bill endeavours to enact a basic requirement demanded by many people. Not only will minors benefit from not being exposed to such material, but other people will no longer be unnecessarily offended. There is enough which gives offence throughout the world already without our allowing that trait to be further developed.

Measures of this kind have commanded great support in the past. Due to the vagaries of parliamentary timing, they have not reached the statute book. Whatever the views of hon. Members about pornography, this Bill surely combines the most liberal and the most conservative of opinions.

I support the Bill, in the knowledge that there is now greater understanding and awareness of the potential problems of exposing some members of an unwilling public to indecent material. It is surely the legitimate concern of all of us that we should safeguard the interests of those people. I trust that the measure will gain the widespread support in the House that it has in the rest of the country.

2.52 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) on proposing this legislation and on the manner in which he presented it to the House. Clearly, a great deal of hard work has been done. It is a formidable achievement for someone who has been a Member of this House for only six months. Piloting a major piece of private Member's legislation through the House is not an enviable task after such a short time here.

I do not doubt that there is a need for this legislation. As a London Member, I am offended when I walk through the streets of London and I am constantly assailed by displays that are offensive not merely to prudes but to most right-minded people. This cancer has spread from Soho into newsagents even in the furthest suburbs of the capital. This should cause great concern to all of us.

The extent of that concern was recognised several years ago by the former Conservative Government when it was proposed to do much the same thing as my hon. Friend now proposes. That Bill fell because of the 1974 general election. My hon. Friend has identified an area of considerable public concern where legislation is needed. It is irrefutable that the present statute law on what may be produced and displayed is in a terrible mess. The Obscene Publications Act governs what may be offered for sale and what may be produced for public consumption.

As the result of the exceptionally unwise prosecution in the "Lady Chatterley's Lover" case early in the life of that Act, and as a result of the particularly tortuous definition of obscenity as something with a tendency to deprave or corrupt, the Act is virtually unusable. Prosecutors are afraid to bring prosecutions because of the enormous difficulties. Some of those difficulties have been set forth, properly, by the hon. and learned Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson).

The indecent display aspect is currently covered by a veritable jungle of legislation, some of it going back as far as 1824 and all of it, for various reasons, unsatisfactory. I was surprised that the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon), whose speech I missed but whose intervention I caught, seemed to say that the Vagrancy Act covered the point. That was an astonishing suggestion, since the Vagrancy Act was intended to deal primarily with the depredations of the soldiery just back from the Napoleonic wars. The Act covers a mass of offences, including the lewd exposure of wounds. It also contains that blot on the statute book, the offence of suspected persons loitering with intent. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House, rightly, feel that the sooner it is removed from the statute book, the better. There is no place in this debate for a defence of the Vagrancy Act although, with his usual way of finding a singular argument, the hon. Member for York did his best to do that.

I do not know whether that was a compliment or a brickbat. Whatever it was, I take it in the spirit in which it was offered. I was not defending the Vagrancy Act, but since that Act, in one element of its multifarious calendar of crimes, did cover the point that we are discussing but has not been effective, perhaps the hon. Gentleman should reconsider the effectiveness of this Bill.

The hon. Gentleman underlines my view. He says that the Act covers this aspect and then says that it is not effective. We cannot cover it if the measure is not effective. That is why we need new legislation.

Having established that there is need for legislation, what we require is a comprehensive measure which deals not only with the display of indecent material but with what may be produced in the first place. I entirely endorse what the Minister said about the difficulty of merely controlling display when we should be most concerned with what is displayed. I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) that some of the details in the Bill are Committee points. They are not. They are fundamental. No matter how concerned we may be about the problem, we should ask whether the Bill catches within its net that which it seeks to catch. In relation to the title of the Bill, there is no definition of what is said to be indecent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough said that he thought that indecency was properly and fully covered by judicial pronouncements. I dissent from that view. The difficulty of judicial pronouncements is that one or two tend to come through the mass and are accepted almost as statutory definitions. That is to the detriment of what we really want to do.

The most commonly accepted definition of "indecency" was given by Lord Reid, who said:
"Indecency is not confined to sexual indecency. Indeed, it is difficult to find any limit short of saying that it includes anything that an ordinary decent man or woman would find to be shocking, disgusting and revolting."
The words "shocking, disgusting and revolting" sound well until one considers what they mean. Do they embrace what many of us believe to be indecent and the spread of it through the London suburbs? I am referring in particular to the semi-pornographic magazines on display in an average newsagent's shop.

It would be extraordinary to say that a naked body is of itself "shocking, disgusting and revolting". That would be an improper form of words to use. However, any juvenile walking into a newsagent's shop to buy chewing gum is confronted with rack after rack of magazines. That is the real abuse about which our constituents are writing to us. I endorse the Minister's view that the danger is not that the Bill seeks to do something that we do not want done, but that it does not succeed in what it sets out to do.

The problem lies in the use of the word "indecency" and the failure to define it in the Bill. I accept entirely what is said in the Williams report and its strictures on indecency. I am sorry that the Williams report was criticised in the press when it was published. I read that report with mounting respect for the work involved and I was impressed that so many people from so many different areas of life had agreed upon one of the most sensible pronouncements on obscenity that we have had.

The point made in that report is that there must be some link between material which, by definition, should not be produced and material which should not be displayed. Williams uses the word "offensive", having rejected other equally interesting concepts, including that which produces a sense of outrage. The committee rightly regarded that as too strong. That was the suggestion by the Defence of Literature and the Arts Society.

The definition of material to be prohibited from being produced or displayed is that which is offensive to reasonable people. That is a simple, commonsense definition which can be readily understood, readily incorporated in statute and particularly readily applied by juries or magistrates. The absence of any such clarity in the Bill is a fundamental weakness. It is so fundamental that it worries me. Unless there is good will in Committee by the Bill's sponsors, I doubt whether the Bill will clear up those matters which it seeks to clear up.

I have already said that I shall extend considerable good will towards suggestions in Committee and be as helpful as I can. I repeat that reassurance.

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I shall certainly vote in favour of the Second Reading. I do not wish to hinder the Bill in any way. Plainly, much has to be done, particularly about the enforcement provisions and what is to be covered in the Bill. In particular, I do not like clause 2. I agree with the Minister that that clause may not be necessary. Even if it is, the reference to those who appear to be under 18 is dangerous. It will be of no assistance.

The question that we all have to ask ourselves is really about the timing of this measure. There is no doubt that there is work for good legislation to do in this area. Why I made the point in an intervention during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough—which I think he took to be critical of what he was saying, though it was not intended to be—was genuinely to see what he thought was the reason why so many displays offensive to ordinary folk were becoming prevalent in our great cities today. Is it because the legislation is in a muddle, or is it because the legislation is not being enforced? I suspect that the reason is a combination of the two—that the legislation has become discredited over the years and that, as a result, the police are extremely reluctant to take proceedings because they know of all the difficulties that supervene in trying to obtain a conviction.

I must confess that I had hoped that the Government would treat this as a matter of some urgency, having regard to the previous Conservative Government's attempts to amend the law in this respect. I appreciate the difficulties with the legislative timetable, but I hope that the most urgent consideration will be given to the Williams report. I should much prefer to see the House debating and passing a measure that dealt with both aspects of this problem, namely, the production and the display.

To my mind, a Bill that merely deals with the display is not, of itself, anything like enough. However, given that that appears to be all that we are to be offered in the next few years, and given that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough has been so generous in accepting the well-meaning criticisms that have been advanced on specific points in the Bill, I would certainly wish to add my voice to those who say "Fair wind to this Bill".

3.5 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) has asked me, as one of the sponsors of the Bill, to wind up the debate, as it were, which I will do extremely briefly. I know that my hon. Friend and I have been very struck by the points made during the debate, not least the points made by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State.

I should like to reiterate that this is not, and was never intended to be, in any way a censorship measure. It is an attempt to remove what my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough described as the public nuisance of soft pornography and also to deal with the problem of display. With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), who directed specific attention to the Williams report, which we shall debate at some stage, in my view there is a real difference between the problems of display and the problems of production of pornography to which he referred.

It may be quite right for my hon. and learned Friend to criticise the Bill for being too modest, but that, in fact, is its entire purpose—to deal with the subject on which I gave evidence to the Williams committee, namely, what we see as one of the greatest problems of all, which is that this aspect of our new society is now thrust upon people, particularly children and young people, in a way that we find morally repugnant. It is therefore a little unfair of some of my hon. Friends to criticise my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough and the sponsors of the Bill for not going far enough when what we are trying to do is to deal with one particular aspect of an important and profound problem—and we recognise how profound it is.

I was very struck by the letter from a school teacher that my hon. Friend read, referring to children caught in the crossfire between what schools were trying to do and what homes were trying to do and what was available to them and so obvious in displays. Lord Halsbury's evidence to the Williams committee on the age of innocence and the importance of innocence I regard as a striking and important aspect, and that is one of the reasons why I not only gave evidence to the committee but was strongly in favour of the Bill and wished to be a sponsor of it.

I am glad that in this debate there has been no deference whatever to the absolute hypocrisy of the vendors of this filth, which much of it is, who claim that they are rendering a great public service when all they are doing is capitalising on and making vast profits and incomes from a singularly messy and miserable profession or enterprise.

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister spoke of the problem of display as a pollution of the environment. He expressed his and the Government's strong support for the principle of the Bill, which, in his own words, is to deal with something that causes offence and embarrassment to ordinary people.

My hon. and learned Friend made some salutary and important reservations and criticisms of the Bill, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Putney. I would disagree with them both just on this. I do not think that their disagreements really are with the principle of the Bill. Nor do I feel that the Williams report, although very recent and significant, vitiates the need for a measure such as this.

Obviously, we shall have some time before the Bill goes into Committee. I hope that by that stage the Williams report will have been debated and the position will have become somewhat clearer, but I believe that it would be unfortuante if the House were to deny a Second Reading to a Bill which, though it has imperfections, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough and I know only too well, represents none the less an attempt to grapple at last with a substantial part of a much greater problem. Having read the Williams report with care, I do not think that there is anything in it which stands against Parliament attempting to deal with this part of the problem, though admittedly at present in an imperfect way.

My hon. and learned Friend said that the Bill pointed in the right direction but it might arouse expectations which cannot be fulfilled. With respect, I argue that it is the task of the House and its Committee to ensure that the fear expressed in the latter part of his words is not realised. It is our task to ensure that if we produce legislation on this matter it shall be effective. I hope that other hon. Members, and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney in particular, with detailed legal knowledge on this question will contribute their great skill and experience to our work so that what is initially a modest measure—my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough described it as such—may nevertheless become sound legislation to remind us that the permissiveness of the 1960s—at one stage described as the civilised society, though some of us took a different view—has changed.

The House should recognise that those attitudes have changed and that it is open to us in a limited and reasonable way to attempt to ensure that some of the outrages of the past few years may be ended. That is the purpose of the Bill, and I ask the House to give it a Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).

Representation Of The People (Amendment) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.11 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a short Bill the content of which has been presented to the House on a number of occasions in the past, usually as part of a more complex measure. We have seen with pleasure that some parts of the previously more complex Bills have recently passed into law, and I trust that it will be possible for this other part of the reform of the procedure for representing the people at parliamentary elections to receive similarly favourable consideration.

Basically, the Bill provides that those who have booked a holiday before a general election is announced will not lose their vote because they are out of the constituency on polling day. I am certain that hon. Members on both sides must frequently have been faced with almost disbelief from electors who have said "I want to vote but I am going away on holiday. Why cannot I have a postal vote?" I have tried to explain—I am sure that others have done the same—that postal votes are available only for those who are disabled or incapacitated or whose employment is likely to take them out of the constituency.

In addition to the element of total surprise, is there not also something verging on indignation, or even despair, since these many people who wish to exercise their democratic right are conscious of the importance of exercising it, and they therefore feel that they are being directly denied that right? Time and again, when approached on the subject, they have said that something ought to be done. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is high time that a proper understanding of that concern was brought home to the House and acted upon?

Yes, I agree, and I am grateful for that information. Almost by definition, those who protest about their inability to cast their vote belong to that substantial majority of the population who take extremely seriously their right of franchise at a general election, and we in this House ought to be the very guardians of the right of the individual elector to cast his vote.

I have limited the scope of the Bill to general elections since the dates of council and local government elections in general are known in advance, and it seems to me that it is at the time of a general election, which may be called at almost any point in the year, that people are most concerned to exercise their vote. Therefore, I am specifically relating this measure to voting at a general election.

There is, of course, a long-standing convention that Governments do not call a general election in the height of summer. I am sure that that is broadly accepted as sound and reasonable. However, that convention arose from the pattern of the past, when going on holiday meant the last week in July and the first week in August, or certainly some time within the school holidays. However, what has happened, especially since the Representation of the People Act 1949 was passed, is that there has been a major social change, related to the relatively low cost of travel and transport these days, which allows people to take holidays away from home at times which they would perhaps have previously regarded as outside the holiday season.

Elderly people and the disabled often choose to take their holidays in the spring or the autumn to take advantage, first, of lower prices of holiday accommodation away from the high season period and, secondly, to avoid the crush. People who are disabled, and those with wheelchairs, are much more able to enjoy their holidays in peace and comfort at a time when the holiday industry is more able to cope with them. Certainly in Portsmouth, North, which I represent, the holiday centre of South sea is pleased to welcome, every year, large numbers of people who are elderly and disabled. We have always made a special point of inviting them to come at a time when the hotels are relatively quiet and when the facilities of the resort are not overstretched, so that they may be given the best holiday possible.

The fact of social change means that people now go on holiday out of the old high season period. It becomes even more likely that, as time goes by, more people will be taking their holidays at a time that could be chosen by a Government to dissolve Parliament and call for a general election.

Could the hon. Gentleman clear up one point which he mentioned a minute or two ago and which he is mentioning again now? He is talking as though his Bill would relate only to a general election. That is what he said a few minutes ago. Does he really mean a general election, or a parliamentary election, including of course by-elections? I think that he means the latter, does he not?

I bow to the hon. Gentleman's more careful use of phrase. The Bill uses the term "parliamentary election". I am sorry. I realise that I have been using the phrase "general election". I wish that the intervention had perhaps come earlier and prevented me from continuing to make that mistake. I am speaking of parliamentary elections as opposed to elections for any form of local government. That would include by-elections.

I was making the point that elderly and disabled people often choose to take their holidays out of the holiday season. Very often they are members of organised groups which plan their holidays many weeks, or even months, in advance. The dates of the holidays are therefore not easily controlled by individuals. They cannot change their holidays quickly at the last moment. Therefore, the measure was brought forward bearing in mind elderly or disabled people who may book group holidays.

I wish to make it quite clear that the Bill is not intended for the advantage of any specific social or economic group. I believe that its benefits will spread right across the spectrum of the electorate, because it is not concerned just with the elderly who go on holiday early or late in the season. Many people try to do that if they can and if they do not have the responsibilities of school-age children. The thinking behind the Bill is to deal with a very wide problem rather than a narrow one.

However, it has been my experience over many years that it is elderly and disabled people who value the right to vote most of all. Certainly that is true in my constituency, and it must be true of many others. It is the elderly and those who have to struggle against disabilities who are the most enthusiastic of all to cast their votes. How often have we all encountered people who refuse help with transport even though everyone feels that they should be helped because he or she feels that it is a duty and privilege to vote?

It is with that in mind that it is important to look at ways to ensure that such people are not effectively disfrancised if a parliamentary election is called at a time which may be far removed from the traditional holiday season.

There is a second aspect of this, which is the concentration of people who go on such holidays from fairly small areas. I am not referring here to the traditional wakes weeks which depopulate certain areas at holiday times. Normally, they occur at a time which would be regarded as a close season for parliamentary elections. However, it is common nowadays for sizeable groups of people to join together in order to obtain all the advantages of group bookings. It is not unusual for 100 or 120 people to make a block booking at a holiday camp or large hotel complex. They may be drawn from one area in a constituency and, if they join other groups from the same town or city—perhaps other old people's clubs or pensioners'groups—it can have a disproportionate effect on the expression of the will of the people in a parliamentary election. It is not simply that a small number of people are out of the constituency. The important aspect is that they are perhaps concentrated strongly in one physical part of the city and made up of one specific group of voters.

Last May, it was my sorrow to discover that a group of people associated with a church decided to take a week's holiday early in May. The effect on the election is not known to me, but there is no doubt that the people who were away at the time felt that their viewpoint had not been expressed in the way that they would have liked. My Bill would provide for those people an opportunity to cast their votes.

I have made inquiries of other hon. Members, and representations have been made to me by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Although there is a broad measure of support for the principle of allowing people away on holiday to vote, I understand that certain general criticisms have been voiced and one specific one about the drafting of the Bill. I shall try to deal with them, conscious of the fact that this is a relatively short debate.

The first is that an increase in the number of persons permitted to vote by post or by proxy might lead to an increase in the number of votes cast after undue influence had been brought to bear, to say nothing of votes cast by persons using ballot papers improperly. There is always the possibility of the misuse of postal voting facilities. However, as far as I am aware it is not a widespread abuse. The use of postal votes by the disabled and by those who are taken away from their homes by their employment has not led to any widespread abuse of which I am aware.

If the danger of undue influence is stressed, I suggest that it is less easy to influence someone who is going on holiday, and who therefore, by definition, is fit and well, than to influence someone who might be very ill and not wish to be bothered with making a decision about voting. Therefore, I do not believe that this extension will lead to an increase in impropriety.

More broadly, I was surprised by the strong feeling among some hon. Members that there is an objection in principle to an extension of postal voting, that it is desirable in our democracy that people should take part physically by casting their votes and that it is debilitating to let them vote by post. One hon. Member said that we in this House must physically walk through the Lobbies to cast our votes.

That is true, and the vast majority of people would always wish to cast their votes at the polling stations in the traditional way. Nevertheless, this group of people would otherwise be prevented from voting. They are not saying "I am too idle to cast my vote at the polling station." They genuinely cannot get there on the appropriate day.

Therefore, the Bill will not encourage a lax attitude to the exercise of the franchise. Nor will it reduce the high regard in which most electors hold their duty to cast votes at parliamentary elections.

Would not my hon. Friend agree that the overriding principle in a democracy is that of one man, one vote, and that anything that we can do to ensure that people have the opportunity to vote we must do? That should be the overriding principle, not the principle of being able physically to cast a vote.

I would add to that principle, of course, the principle of the secret ballot.

I am grateful for both interventions, because they reinforce my point that our objective must be to ensure that everyone who wants to vote can do so and that people are encouraged to vote so that the proportion who do is as high as possible.

One weakness of which the Bill is accused is the very simplicity for which I commended it. I was tempted to try to define "a holiday'. It is no secret that at one stage I considered providing for a holiday only of a particular length and at a particular distance from the constitu- ency. The complications became so obvious that it appeared that the best approach was to rely on the common sense of the elector seeking to vote by post or proxy and on the wisdom of the electoral registration officer, who already has discretion about the employment of an elector who may be away from the constituency at the time of an election. He exercises his discretion on a commonsense basis. I therefore did not attempt to carry out that definition, and I am glad that on the whole it appears that that was a wise decision. However, I felt that I ought to make that point in view of the fact that earlier we were told that definitions were essential if a Bill was to have any chance of success.

All that we are asking is that the individual should be able to satisfy the electoral registration officer that he booked a holiday before the date on which the election was announced. Once the election has been announced, it is up to the person to decide whether he will choose, to be away on election day. He will have to show that he has booked his holiday previously. If he can show that, and that he is likely to be out of the constituency on polling day, he should have the right to vote other than in person.

What it someone has a country cottage and always goes there for a holiday? Then he does not need to book the holiday at all.

The important thing is that the location of the holiday should be outside the constituency and that it has been planned in advance. It may be that the word "booked" may not apply in that case. I personally would accept that a person does not necessarily need to make a booking with some third party in the sense of having paid a deposit and registered on some kind of application form. It would be necessary to show that a person had planned a holiday which could not readily be changed, not merely that on a whim he decided to go down to his cottage on election day. It would have to be shown that it was a planned holiday—something that was arranged in advance.

Is it really necessary to do that? Surely the case of a man who need not go on holiday but chooses to do so is no different from the situation which is presently covered by legislation in relation to a business man who does not have to make a particular business trip. He could make such a trip but would be entitled to a postal vote as of right. Why should it be any different for someone who chooses to go on holiday?

I thank my hon. Friend. The Bill uses the words "likely to be unable". Therefore, it does not insist that a person must be away on holiday at that stage, just as a person who has a postal vote because of his employment does not have to be away on business at that time. I think that the same considerations would apply, but I take the point that this is a question of distinction which the electoral registration officer would have to take into account.

My hon. Friend has admirably drafted the Bill. The words contained in it are that a person "had made arrangements", not booked. If one made the arrangement to go to one's cottage in Cornwall on holiday, that would be sufficient as the Bill stands. I am not at all sure that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) was not teasing a little bit.

That is quite possible at this time on a Friday afternoon. The point is that the Bill does not suggest that a person must have some kind of contract before the right to vote in this way can be offered.

I have concentrated very much on the aspect of postal voting because I think that that is likely to be the most common way in which this problem will be overcome. A group of people or a family would know that they would be away at a particular time, they would know where they were going, they would know where they would be at the time a ballot paper was sent out, they could furnish the electoral registration officer with an address to which the ballot paper could be sent and they could return it in the normal way.

However, the problem with holidays is that with the wide availability of motor vehicles and the popularity of cruising it is not always possible for the individual, who may know where he will be on polling day, to give an address to the electoral registration officer to which the ballot paper could be sent at such a time as to permit its return at the appropriate time before polling day.

For that reason, there is the inclusion in the Bill of the opportunity for the individual to specify, if he so wishes, the right to vote by proxy. I believe that on the whole this is not so widely used in other cases, but it might well prove to be an essential alternative in the case of holiday voting, especially if the holiday is of a touring nature and not one that provides for a fixed address throughout the whole period. The important point is that we are offering an opportunity to people to cast their votes.

This morning I had the opportunity to speak about the Bill on a radio programme. What happened after the programme impressed me. Presenters of programmes are usually a fairly hard-bitten group who have heard all the political arguments. Usually, they are not greatly impressed with what politicians have to say. However, after the programme the presenter turned to the producer and said "Well, you can't argue with that, can you?" I am sure that in this House there are always those who could argue with anything. Nevertheless, I believe that the Bill commands a broad degree of support within the country from those who recognise that they might be disadvantaged next time round, even if they were not disadvantaged last time. It could be their turn next time.

There are marginal constituencies where a handful of votes—fewer than those of the 100 or 120 people who may go on holiday in three or four coaches from a sizeable club—could decide the representation of that constituency.

I missed the radio programme this morning. I take it that it was a good one. Did the hon. Gentleman mention that he would be in favour of changing the electoral system so that we could have proportional representation?

I take that important point. On another occasion I might well take the opportunity to express views on that matter, not only in the studio but in the House. This morning I did not take that opportunity because of a lack of time.

The presenter said "You can't argue with that." I believe that she was probably expressing the view of a great many outside the House as well as inside the House. This is a modest but useful measure of electoral reform. It helps people to feel part of the democratic system to which we are all committed and of which we are all a part.

I commend the Bill to the House this afternoon and request that it be given a Second Reading.

3.39 pm

As there are several Members who wish to speak before 4 o'clock, I hope that I can make my points, albeit in a very staccato fashion. In raising points in my intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), I was not teasing him. I was, if anything, saying "It ain't just as simple as it sounds". Many things fall into that category, and this is most certainly one of them.

The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that his proposal is that postal voting should be permitted in parliamentary elections, whether a general election or a by-election. First, I do not think that it would ever be defensible that one should have postal voting for parliamentary elections but not for local elections. Secondly, I do not think that it would be defensible to have postal voting on demand for parliamentary and local elections and not for the European Parliament elections. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman intends that it should apply to the elections for the European Parliament, but I put it to the House that it is not defensible to have it for some kinds of elections and not for others.

That consideration and the kinds of more detailed considerations which were made in interventions are ones which perhaps bear out the wisdom of the House in normally referring an issue of this kind to Mr. Speaker's Conference. This happens with matters to do with the conduct of elections, such as the entitlement to vote by post. By tradition, they are referred to Mr. Speaker's Conference. This is a matter which has, of course, been before Mr. Speaker's Conference in the past, not only with no recommendation that the extension proposed in this Bill should be made but with the recommendation that it should not be made. We have a positive recommendation from Mr. Speaker's Conference in the past that is contrary to the proposal contained in the Bill.

I would be the last person to say that this House should not ever go against the recommendation of a Speaker's Conference, but where a Speaker's Conference has come out with a recommendation and we wish to argue that there are new considerations which ought to lead to its being rethought, the least we must do to start with is to have that matter reconsidered by a further Speaker's Conference, which is something one would expect to happen, I suppose, in the next year or two.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North found himself getting into a swamp. He had obviously dragged himself back from that swamp in preparing his Bill, when he was trying to define what would be a holiday. The truth of the matter is that there is no way whatever of defining what is a holiday. If we permit a person to have the postal vote when he has made arrangements to go away on holiday, then in all normal circumstances in a very short time we shall find that the postal vote is available on demand. That is, therefore, the question that one wants to pose. Do we wish to see a significant extension of the right to vote by post or by proxy?

In principle, surely it must be right, as has already been said, that the main consideration should be that everyone who who is in general terms entitled to vote by reason of normal residence, nationality and age, should be able to vote. But I added the consideration of the secret ballot, and that is not irrelevant.

I turn now to the last point that I want to make.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a situation such as I have come across, where a person going on holiday has said that he was going on business, which was accepted without question by the electoral officer?

Yes, I have. I do not know whether all Members have the same experience, but there was a change made in recent years in the rules relating to getting the right to vote by post for people who were too disabled or ill to get to the poll. The result of that change is that in some rural areas—not in all—a person can very easily get the right to vote by post by claiming that he is too ill or disabled to be able to go to the poll. Medical certification is not now needed in order to get that facility. It is necessary only to provide evidence that is acceptable to the registration officer. Some registration officers will accept certification from the candidates and their agents, while others require something much closer to the traditional medical certification.

But let me develop my point on the secret ballot for a minute or two. There is a view held that the importance of the Ballot Act 1872 was that it permitted a person to keep his vote secret if he wanted to do so. No. The importance of the 1872 Act was that it forced a person to keep his vote secret whether he wanted to or not.

If I want to buy votes, I shall not pay for them if I cannot have it proved to me that the persons concerned have delivered their part of the bargain. What the Ballot Act said was not that the person could keep his vote secret if he wanted to but that he would never be able to prove how he voted, because he had to mark his ballot paper in the booth. He is not permitted to show it to the returning officer or to anyone else.

If a candidate happens to be in the polling station at that time, as he is entitled to be, and goes to the polling booth with the voter in order to witness, as it were, how the voter is voting, the presiding officer will stop that, and he has to stop it under the rules as they are now. The postal vote breaches that practice. The postal vote is a witnessable vote, and a proxy vote, by definition, is the same. That is an important point.

As long as the proportion of the postal votes in an election is reasonably small in relation to the total, the breach of principle in the secrecy of the ballot is not important, and in all normal circumstances no one will go about buying the postal votes, which is theoretically possible.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, even under the present system, the number of postal votes passed may well be greater than the majority of the successful candidate?

Yes, I do, and it is significant that, while in modern times corruption in electoral practice has been virtually unknown in this country, where it has been known it has nearly always related to the postal vote.

The point that I am making is that, yes, there could be the odd case where postal votes could make all the difference between candidate A or candidate B winning the election, but the risk of that is greatly extended if the number of people who can claim the absent vote is massively increased. Therefore, whenever we are considering a possible extension of the postal vote, we should take that factor into account.

It so happens that I think that I know the right answer to this, which is to permit absent voting that is not postal voting. There are difficulties about it, and every presiding and returning officer in the country would not thank us for doing it. However, it would be possible to have an arrangement whereby the ballot paper was posted to the person, as is done for a postal vote, but instead of marking it and returning it by post he was required to take it to the place where he was on holiday or on business, take it into a polling station and put it in a special ballot box. All those votes would then have to be reported back to the respective constituency returning officers—and there is the difficulty about the arrangement. However, it would not present the danger to the secrecy of the vote and to the opening up of the possibility of corruption which is certainly presented by a massive increase in the postal vote as it stands.

Because of that fundamental point and the lesser points that I mentioned initially, it seems to us that, while in principle the extension of the vote to people on holiday is desirable, it is a matter that should be considered by Mr. Speaker's Conference once again, and we hope that there will be an early opportunity for that.

3.47 pm

I want to be extremely brief, but as I am in the unique position of having moved the first similar Bill about 10 years ago and was also the first hon. Member to move an Indecent Displays Bill, both of which were throttled because of general elections, I should like to say a few words.

Mr. Speaker's Conference on this matter was a long time ago. Furthermore, the question of holiday voting was strangled upstairs at the time on party lines. At that time the Labour Party thought that it was a dangerous Bill and that it would lose by it, which was hardly surprising. I then represented the Isle of Thanet—I now represent Thanet, West—and had some 1,800 people in my constituency, all of whom were Tories, who were away during October on holiday, as they always are. The whole picture has, however, changed, and there are not the same party lines on the matter.

I speak now in my role as the newly elected chairman of the Conservative committee on tourism, and tourism today means two or three holidays a year. Because of that, the old people in the Labour-held seats of the North, for example, are away at the most unusual times—May, September, October, December, all sorts of times. Therefore, thank goodness, the partisan spirit between our two parties no longer exists.

I am convinced that a Speaker's Conference would take a different view now from the one taken many years ago. I hope that the matter will be given urgent consideration. The Bill will not reach Committee stage quickly but, when it does, I am sure that its reception will be very different from the one that my Bill received. I had to fight Opposition Members in Committee on every kind of technicality.

Therefore, I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading. The Minister must be brief today and little else on the subject can be heard today. However, it can all be heard later in Committee. I am convinced that the Bill, as it stands, is well drafted. It means that if people have made arrangements to go on holiday they must report that fact. I take the point that anybody could give that excuse, but people have to go away on holiday. If they stay in their constituency and do not vote because they have a proxy vote or a vote by post, they will be found out. That will not cause too much harm because, to a large degree, we have reached the stage of those provisions.

In my constituency all the hoteliers go away on holiday—or rather, on business. I make sure that they all go away on business. They have only to make one booking when they are away to be away on business. Nobody on the Isle of Thanet does not know that when he goes away during an election he must do some business in order to cast his vote. In my constituency, there are more old people on supplementary benefit than in any other place in England. Of course, because they are unable to get to the polls, they are entitled to certificates registering their disablement. One way or the other, we get around the problem. It is time that the matter was put on a fair and square basis, including holidays, and I believe that the Bill should be given a Second Reading.

3.51 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) on putting forward the Bill.

At the outset, I should like to refer to Mr. Speaker's Conference, to which hon. Members have already referred. It is true that the matter has been considered by a Speaker's Conference, and it is equally true that another Speaker's Conference might take a different view. However, we should not allow too rigid a convention to be built up and say that matters must be referred to a Speaker's Conference. It is a mistake to think that there has been no significant legislation on electoral matters except after reference to a Speaker's Conference. It is important to put that fact on record to make clear that we cannot regard a Speaker's Conference as being a necessary certificate before proceeding in these matters.

I personally welcome the opportunity afforded by the Bill in order to return to the subject of absent voting facilities for holidaymakers. Conservative Members may be aware that I touched on the subject at the Conservative Party conference this year. At that time, I said that the Government were sympathetic to extending absent voting facilities to holidaymakers. As a matter of principle it has always seemed to me to be wrong that many thousands of people, when certain elections are held in holiday months, should be effectively deprived of the opportunity to vote. To allow that to continue means, in effect, to regard going on holiday as somethting so immoral or unworthy that it should be inflicted with a major deprivation of a crucial civic right. I do not take that attitude towards going on holiday—quite the reverse.

Nor do I believe that long-standing arrangements can and should be expensively dropped or changed in order to allow somebody to cast a vote in person. I agree entirely that that is unfair and unrealistic. There are anomalies in the absent voting laws which should be set right so that the basic democratic right of the franchise is not artificially withdrawn from a random group of the population—those who go on holiday at a particular time.

I do not accept the objection in principle referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North that in some sense there is a virtue, for its own sake, in being physically present at the ballot box. I cannot see any merit in that and I do not believe that it should be a requirement for the exercise of the franchise.

The point about secrecy raised by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) is much more serious, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is possible to devise absent voting arrangements that protect secrecy. That is one of the matters that we shall have to consider.

I assure the House that the Government approach the Bill in a positive spirit, and I do not dissent from much of the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North. However, it is my duty to draw attention to some of the practical problems, all of which we are carefully examining, associated with any substantial extension of postal voting facilities along the lines proposed in the Bill. We must proceed on the basis that if we go down this road it is likely to be a substantial extension of absent voting facilities.

We believe that the objections and practical difficulties can, and ought to, be overcome. This is not one of those occasions when I point out practical difficulties as a way of torpedoing a proposal or approach. We are looking carefully into these matters and I hope that it will be possible, when our studies are concluded, for us to put forward proposals to deal with the difficulties and allow those in the situation described by my hon. Friend to exercise the right of franchise to which they are entitled.

However, in order to do that effectively, it will be necessary to have a rather more far-ranging approach than that proposed in the Bill and that would, perhaps, be more appropriate for Government legislation. Although I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the thought behind the Bill and fully support the principle, I do not think that the Bill is entirely adequate to meet the objective that my hon. Friend and I share and which, I suspect, is shared by the vast majority of people in this country.

I hope that in making clear that our studies have been embarked on with a positive end in view, I shall not be misunderstood if I illustrate some of the problems by outlining some of the difficulties presented by the scheme proposed in the Bill.

Clause 1 is the substantive clause. It would enable voters at parliamentary elections who were on holiday on the date of the poll, and could satisfy the electoral registration officer accordingly, to vote by post if their holiday address were in the United Kingdom, or by proxy if their holiday address were abroad. I believe that my hon. Friend simply has it in mind that the new category of voters entitled to absent voting facilities could be grafted on to the existing group of absent voters which, under the 1949 legislation, as amended, consists mainly of those whose occupation takes them away in the course of their general duties on polling day or who will necessarily be unable to attend the poll because of sickness.

At the moment, it is possible for such people, and the other categories of absent voters, to apply either for an absent vote for a particular election or, if their inability to attend in person is more permanent, for an absent vote for an indefinite period.

As I have said, those categories have remained more or less fixed since 1948, and it is interesting to note that the number of electors making use of absent voting facilities has remained constant during this period at about 2 per cent. or 3 per cent of the electorate. It may be, of course, that many other electors who are qualified do not apply, or fail to do so in time, despite official encouragement in newspaper advertising and so on. In some constituencies the party organisations are better geared to tracing all potential postal votes, and consequently the percentage of people using the facility varies from constituency to constituency. Overall, the numbers eligible for postal votes under the present criteria can be predicted accurately in advance, and the necessary administrative arrangements, well rehearsed at previous elections, can be sent in motion.

Hon. Members will also be aware of the extreme fastidiousness, if I may so describe—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

Licensing (Amendment) Bill

Read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).

Rights Of Private Tenants Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 25 January.

Police Authorities (Powers) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 8 February.

Coroners Bill

Read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).

Ground Game Bill

Read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).

Gaming (Amendment) Bill Lords

Read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).

Married Women's Policies Of Assurance (Scotland) (Amendment) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 14 December.

Concessionary Travel For Mentally Handicapped Persons (Scotland) Bill

Read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).


That it be an instruction to the Committee on the Bill that they have power to apply the provisions of the Bill to all handicapped persons in Scotland.—[Mr. Campbell.]

Highways (Road Humps) Bill

Read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).

Licensing Etc (Amendment) Bill

Order read for resuming debate on Question [ 30 November], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 14 December.

Hypnotism (No 2) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 14 December.

Highlands And Islands Land Development Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 8 February.

Free Ports Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 14 December.

Business Of The House


That the provisions of paragraph (3) of the Order of 22nd May relating to Business of the House shall have effect with the following modifications:
Private Members' Notices of Motions shall have precedence over Government Business on 14th December 1979, and on 18th and 25th January, 1st February, 21st and 28th March, 18th April and 9th May 1980, and Ballots for the Notices for 18th January and subsequent days shall be held after Questions on Wednesday 12th December and Wednesday 19th December 1979 and on Wednesday 16th January, Wednesday 5th March, Wednesday 12th March, Wednesday 26th March and Wednesday 23rd April 1980.—[Mr. Cope.]

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether, in the form of a point of order, I could ask you and others involved to try to ensure that when we have this process at 4 o'clock on a Friday there is a very loud and audible cry of "Object" from those who normally call "Object". There is a problem, because other Members might wish to object if no one else were to do so. If there is a cosy little conversation in the two yards over yonder, it makes a difficulty for other Members—a legitimate difficulty—which they need not suffer.

I am sure that what the hon. Gentleman said has been noted. My difficulty is when there is a cosy conversation at the other end of the House and I do not hear it.

New Hebrides

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Cope.]

4.5 pm

I want to raise the issue of the condominium of the New Hebrides, which is probably one of the lesser known colonial territories in the world. It is a unique territory, since for the past 100 years—certainly for about 70 years—it has been governed jointly by both Britain and France.

The New Hebrides is now moving towards independence. A constitution has already been drawn up. I congratulate the Minister on his efforts in Vela. Those who work there say that he contributed significantly to the final success of the constitution talks. An election has been held. The Vanuaaku Pati—it would not like to be described as such, but it is a broadly English-speaking party since it has a majority of English-speaking people as members—won an almost two-thirds majority of all the seats on the island.

This is a significant situation since, apart from the Pitcairn Islands, this will be Britain's last political responsibility in the Pacific Ocean. It is important that, as the New Hebrides moves towards independence, that independence is gained in a smooth transition and that the new Government are free from intimidation by interests on the island which might make the life of the new independent Government difficult.

I understand that the constitution, as it has been worked out, is the most satisfactory constitution that the members of the Vanuaaku Pati feel could have been achieved on the issues of land and citizenship. There may still be difficulties about land. Therefore, I hope that the Government will keep an eye on these issues.

In the light of recent events, a new and special responsibility lies on the Government. Not only have we, jointly with the French, the responsibility to hand over to an independent Government the New Hebrides free from any externally backed internal subversion, but we, as Britain, have a particular responsibility. The island is to be handed over in such a state that one hopes that over the years the colonial inheritance of the British and French will merge into a New Hebridean feeling, but for a few years there will be clashes.

It is our duty to ensure that the anglophone interests are properly protected on independence. I do not want to say a great deal about the French role in the Pacific. Indeed, I do not want the Minister to comment on what I am about to say now because I know that he has a delicate role with the French. In many ways the British Government have played a more honourable role in handing over our territories to independence in the Pacific than have the French. The French still maintain troops both on New Caledonia and in French Polynesia. They have made it clear that they do not foresee the prospect of independence for either New Caledonia or for French Polynesia in the foreseeable future.

The French continue to use underground sites near the island of Muroroa in Polynesia for nuclear testing. That brings grave and serious protests from the small independent island States which have joined those who, for many years, have tried to make the Southern Hemisphere a nuclear-free zone. The French alone are a serious obstacle to that objective.

The handing over of our responsibilities and the questions that I ask are against that background. Just over 10 days ago, on the island of Santo, which is one of the northernmost islands in the New Hebrides group, there was an attempt—not unprecedented—to intimidate members of the Vanuaaku Pati. That intimidation was organised by an individual called Jimmy Stevens. This man has been associated in the past with unsavoury American interests which were attempting, not only in the New Hebrides but in other parts of the Pacific, to create a gambler's tax haven and a refuge for criminals.

Those events of 10 days ago have now died down, I am happy to say. I learnt by telephone from the New Hebrides today that all is quiet on the island of Santo. Have the Government any information which connects this recent attempt at intimidation with what I call Mafia interests? It is the belief of Walter Lini, the Chief Minister of the New Hebrides, that there are still connections with business men in Costa Rica and Hawaii, some of which involve both former and existing members of the Mafia. The more that the Government can say about this, the better.

In the past, land on Santo has been sold to French colons and through them to Americans who used to have connec- tions with what was known as the Phoenix Foundation. Can the Government say whether any land is similarly owned there at the moment? The Government have done well with the constitution for the New Hebrides, but time and time again British Governments have misjudged the attitude of Pacific islanders to the question of land ownership. Half of the trouble that we experienced with the Banabans might have been avoided had we had a greater understanding of how they felt about land. It is not just that they cannot conceive of the idea of privately owned land, but they cannot understand that land can belong to private citizens. They not only believe that land belongs, inalienably, to the whole people, but they are completely affronted by the concept of land ownership. They believe it to be an immoral idea.

The constitution does safeguard the land and makes it clear that land is in the ultimate ownership of the Government of the New Hebrides. However, I understand that there are certain exceptions to that rule for urban land. Is the Minister satisfied that the land provisions in the constitution make it impossible after independence for those groups which have been trying to achieve control in the new New Hebrides and elsewhere to take control of land in the future? What proportion of the land is in the ownership of what I call the colons? I do not use that word in a pejorative sense. It is the easiest way to describe French people who qualify for citizenship because they have lived in the New Hebrides but are similar to people of French origin in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, which are not going independent. Are the Government satisfied that the new New Hebrides Government will be able to stand up against powerful financial interests which, for better or for worse, happen to be in the hands of the French colons?

I have been fairly outspoken, but I do not intend disrespect to the French Government. They have been wholly proper in their efforts to achieve independence, alone with the British Government. However, the French role in the Pacific is entirely different from ours. The people of the Pacific see the position in that way, and that gives us a particular responsibility.

I now turn to the transition to independence as it affects the House of Com- mons. What date in 1980 is the Minister aiming at for independence? In which month does he estimate independence will be achieved? Will there be a White Paper on the constitution? If so, when will it be published? Why have we not had a White Paper already since the details were fixed some time ago?

I asked some questions recently about legislation. It was said that if the New Hebrides Government want to remain in the Commonwealth, legislation might be needed. May we have clarification about whether an independence Bill is required? Many of those who follow affairs in the Pacific think that if we hand over independence, an independence Bill should be passed by the House. The Minister will have to use a cogent argument if he wishes to persuade me to the contrary.

Can the Minister confirm that it is open to the New Hebrides Government to be included not only in the Lomé convention, as the other Pacific States have been, but in the British Commonwealth and its French counterpart so that we shall have a stake in the Pacific? That would be an enormous gain in the sense of improving understanding between former British and former French colonies. All hon. Members will wish to pass to the new Government of the New Hebrides our good wishes for the future as they move to independence.

I turn to the question of aid. The position of the New Hebrides in the Pacific is unique. In no similar country in Africa has the West left the people in the appalling position of speaking two major European languages so that even senior people in the community find it difficult to communicate. No real effort has been made to help the people through that language barrier.

Could something be done, through the aid provision, to establish some sort of outpost of the university of the South Pacific so that the New Hebrides—in some small way at first, perhaps, but growing to something better—might become a kind of language centre where those who throughout the Pacific, whether from the French-speaking or the English-speaking territories, wish to perfect their bilinguality can achieve that? I know that the small number of bilingual people has been a problem, even within the Vanuaaku Pati of the New Hebrides.

That is my last point, and I hope that in the time that I have left to the Minister he will be able to answer as many as possible of the questions that I have put.

4.20 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) for initiating this debate, as it gives me the opportunity to tell the House about the significant progress that is being made towards the achievement of independence for the New Hebrides next year. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about my own role in the recent constitutional conference.

The New Hebrides, which I visited in September, with my French colleague, M. Dijoud, is a unique territory. I should like to pay a tribute to M. Dijoud for the close co-operation that I enjoyed with him at that time and since then.

The New Hebrides is a condominium where both Britain and France have jurisdiction. There are two colonial Governments, two police forces, two systems of education and several varieties of competitive Christianity. In short, most things are duplicated. This curious situation has its origin in an Anglo-French naval treaty of 1887. The basic constitutional document which established the unwieldy machinery to which I have just referred is the Anglo-French Protocol of 1914.

The New Hebrides has been within the sphere of influence of both Britain and France. This has had, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, some unfortunate results. Although the people of the New Hebrides can communicate with each other in Bislama, a form of pidgin, both English and French are the languages of the Administration. It has also retarded the growth of a real sense of New Hebridean nationhood and left the country divided on cultural, linguistic, religious and, latterly, political lines. In view of this legacy of differences between the anglophone and francophone New Hebrideans, the progress of recent months is all the more remarkable and all the more welcome.

I come now to the more recent history. British and French Ministers met New Hebrides political leaders in July 1977 and drew up plans for independence by 1980. But, despite this agreement in principle, the divisions to which I have referred frustrated real progress until very recently.

In November 1977 the anglophone Vanuaaku Pati boycotted elections to the Representative Assembly. We were then faced with a predominantly francophone Assembly, with anglophone interests, as represented by the Vanuaaku Pati, excluded from the democratic process and committed to a policy of opposition to the lawful elected Government.

British and French Ministers recognised that in these circumstances the prospects of preparing the country for a successful independence were remote. My predecessor, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, and the responsible French Minister M. Paul Dijoud, made strenuous efforts to find a way out of the constitutional deadlock. They are to be congratulated on formulating the proposals which have led to the progress which even a year ago would have appeared almost impossible. Their proposals envisaged the establishment of a Government of national unity in which francophones and anglophones would be equally represented and which would be responsible for drafting an independence constitution and preparing for fresh elections on a basis acceptable to all political parties.

Those proposals were accepted by the opposing political groups, and in December 1978 a Government of national unity was formed. In March this year, the New Hebrides Government appointed a constitutional committee to work out a constitution for an independent New Hebrides. They were assisted by constitutional advisers provided by Britain and France.

The prime purpose of my visit in September of this year, together with M. Dijoud, was to take part in a constitutional conference with the members of the constitutional committee and the New Hebrides Council of Ministers. I am pleased to report that on 19 September the draft constitution was unanimously accepted by the constitutional committee and the Council of Ministers.

The conference decided also that elections would be held on 14 November to the Representative Assembly and to regional assemblies for the islands of Santo and Tanna. On 23 October the constitution was formally adopted by the British and French Governments in an exchange of notes signed in Paris.

The exchange of notes, which will be published as a Command Paper, provides for the New Hebrides to become independent next year under the constitution agreed in Vila in September. The precise date of independence will be determined in consultation with the New Hebrides Government, and I expect a decision on this to be made soon.

Under the constitution, the New Hebrides will be a republic with an elected President as Head of State. It will have a unicameral legislature and a Cabinet responsible to it headed by a Prime Minister. The constitution provides for the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms of the individual, citizenship, the judicature and the public service.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the important question of land, and he asked what proportion of land is now owned by colons. The constitution provides that all land in the republic will belong to the indigenous custom owners and their dependants. It requires that Parliament shall enact a national land law. It goes on to say that Parliament shall prescribe such criteria as it deems appropriate for the assessment of compensation and the manner of its payment to those persons whose interests are adversely affected.

The hon. Gentleman said that successive British Governments had failed to understand the importance of land in the minds of the Pacific people. I do not think that I can accept that stricture. But when he went on to say that this alleged misunderstanding helped to explain the problem of the Banabans, it seemed to me that, whatever may be the merits of that argument, one lesson which we can learn from the New Hebrides is that if the Banaban claim to independence from Kiribati had been accorded, the implications for secessionist movements in other parts of the Pacific, and notably in the New Hebrides, would have been very serious.

The hon. Gentleman asked also about the Phoenix Trust. I do not have to hand the information for which he asks about the ownership of land by the Phoenix Trust, but I shall see whether I can obtain it and write to the hon. Gentleman.

The French and British Governments and the New Hebridean leaders have accepted that, particularly in a country where a sense of national unity has still to be forged, it is essential to make arrangements for safeguarding the interests of minorities. Representatives of the islands of Santo and Tanna felt strongly at the time of the constitutional conference in September that there was a risk of their interests being neglected by a possibly predominant anglophone majority in the central Government in Vila. For that reason, it was agreed that, in addition to the Representative Assembly in Vila, there would be regional assemblies on those two islands.

I pay tribute to the New Hebridean political leaders whose wisdom and moderation over months of difficult negotiation have made these achievements possible. I think that the results of the constitutional conference are evidence of the determination of New Hebrideans to work together in the common interests of the country.

The hon. Gentleman asked about legislation. I am advised that no independence Bill will be necessary as we are not here dealing with a colony; we are dealing with a condominium. However, legislation will be necessary if, as we hope, the New Hebrides applies to join the Commonwealth.

The hon. Gentleman made an interesting suggestion about language, education and the university of the South Pacific, which I shall certainly consider.

In the elections on 14 November, the Vanuaaku Pati obtained 26 of the 39 seats in the Assembly. It also obtained majorities in both regional assemblies. The new Representative Assembly met for the first time on 28 November and elected its Chairman. The President of the Vanuaaku Pati, Fr. Walter Lini, was elected Chief Minister. Fr. Lini subsequently named an eight-man Council of Ministers.

The elections themselves were conducted in an orderly and peaceful manner, and it is unfortunate that when the results were offcially declared on 19 November certain elements on the islands of Santo and Tanna displayed their open opposition to the lawfully elected Government. In Santo Town, supporters of a local political movement, called Na Griamel, engaged in acts of intimidation against Vanuaaku Pati supporters and several hundred people were reported to have fled from the island in fear. However, following consultation with the New Hebrides Government, British and French officials were successful in persuading the leader of the Na Griamel movement to call a halt to these acts of provocation. No further incidents have been reported. The situation at present is calm, and indications are that it should remain so. On the island of Tanna, threats to the peace by supporters of a custom movement were similarly averted by the timely intervention of British and French officials.

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State assured the House on 22 November, in reply to a private notice question, the British Government accept full responsibility, together of course in this case with the French Government, for the internal security and the external defence of the New Hebrides. I hope that good sense will prevail and that there will be no repetition of the troubles on Santo and Tanna which I have just described. But I can assure the House that we are prepared to take all necessary steps to preserve the peace of the New Hebrides as long as we are responsible for it.

Although the precise date has yet to be fixed, we are now embarked on the final stages of the road to independence.

Some anxiety was expressed that attempts might be made by some elements to delay independence. I have no reason to expect that that will be so. The date for independence will be fixed between the French, British and New Hebrides Governments. It is the firm intention that it will take place next year.

Close co-operation between the two metropolitan Governments and the New Hebrides Government is obviously essential if the road to independence is to be traversed smoothly. I am confident that before long the New Hebrides will have achieved independence, and we look forward to welcoming the new State to the international community as a member of the Commonwealth; and, indeed, we hope that it will retain equally close links with the community of French-speaking countries.

But the New Hebrides is a poor country, at least in economic terms. It will continue to need help from reliable friends. Hon. Members will be aware of reports that disreputable foreign business interests, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, have attempted from time to time to encourage separatist movements in the New Hebrides, and, indeed, elsewhere in the Pacific, for their financial gain. We are watching the position closely, but I have no evidence that such business interests were directly involved in the disturbances which took place in Santo after the elections.

As far as British aid is concerned, the House will understand that I am not in a position this afternoon to give precise details of the size of our programme after independence, but it will be generous and commensurate with the needs of the country. I am confident that the French Government, too, will assist the new State.

I believe that the new-found unity in the New Hebrides will be strong enough to overcome the divisive effects of nearly 70years of condominium rule and that the determination of New Hebridean leaders to succeed will result in a viable and democratic independent State.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Five o'clock.