HL Deb 12 February 1976 vol 368 cc185-9

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are considering amending the Obscene Publications Act.

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich)

My Lords, the operation of the law is kept under continuing review, but the Government have no plans for immediate special legislation.


My Lords, will not the Minister agree that the recent case has done a great deal for the publicity of this obscene book, and that clearly the present law is not effective? Would it not be worth while for the Government to see whether a law, inspired by the present Home Secretary, might be changed and improved so that we should not have books of this type made public and made popular, with all the damage that they do?


My Lords, the present legislation was put on the Statute Book as a result of a very substantial amount of support from both sides of another place and indeed both sides of this House. I am by no means convinced that there is any simple, workable and acceptable change in the law which would resolve the problem simply. But nevertheless, as I have indicated, the Government will certainly keep the issue under review.


My Lords, is it not a rather unhappy story which has succeeded the passage of the 1959 Act? One has now quite an amount of case history. Is it not true that in a recent case brought under this Act rather full use was made of the right of peremptory challenge by the defendant? Are not we rather less than edified by this extraordinary procession of so-called experts who claim to be experts in the public good, and who are almost impossible to contradict because nobody is fool enough to give expert evidence on the other side? Who can be an expert in the public good? What was Parliament thinking about—indeed what was I thinking about, when I was Lord President when the 1959 Act went through —to allow such rubbish to appear on the Statute Book?


My Lords, I am saddened that the noble and learned Lord is so full of self-reproach on an occasion such as this, but I note that he cheerfully accepts that degree of responsibility for the passage of this Bill through Parliament, therefore confirming the point I made in answer to the first supplementary question. I take the point the noble and learned Lord makes about the use of peremptory challenge; but, of course, this is a matter which, if it was examined, would have to be looked at in a wider context. What I am clear about is that this is a matter which, in cases of this kind, is properly left to the jury to determine.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the fault lies not so much with the Statute as with the selection of books which are prosecuted under the Statute? Would he agree that far more attention should be paid to the pornography of violence and far less to the pornography of sex?


My Lords, these are difficult matters which the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions have to consider. It is not, in my view quite rightly, for the Government to take a view; it is for the prosecuting authorities to arrive at a conclusion as to what is right, and it is for them to decide what is right in the difficult circumstances of these cases.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether I am right in thinking that under the 1959 Act literary merit was to be taken into consideration, and that, if this had been taken into consideration in regard to this horrible book, it might have been banned, or it would have helped to do so?


My Lords, my noble friend is right. That is one of the factors to be taken into account. It is one of the matters about which the jury has to reach a decision. But I must repeat that it is a matter for the jury to make a decision in cases of this kind. They are the people who read the book, and it is for them to decide to bring in a verdict of guilty or not guilty.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the silent majority in the community look to the Government of the day to protect them against the publication of obscene material, and that this was the purpose of both the 1959 Act and the 1964 Act? Is the noble Lord aware that, following the failure of this recent prosecution, there is a great disturbance of public opinion, and something much stronger and more responsive than the noble Lord's reaction today is needed to meet the occasion?


My Lords, the Government will certainly take into consideration any representations which they may receive on this matter. But I must emphasise that Parliament has looked at this matter on a number of occasions. The 1959 Act was put on the Statute Book because Parliament was not convinced, at that stage, that the state of the law was satisfactory. It may well be that the matter will have to be considered again. It is not a simple matter, as the noble Lord seems to suggest. Certainly, if the noble Lord, or anybody else, wishes to put forward proposals the Government will be glad to look at them.


My Lords, the noble Lord will bear in mind, will he not, that no one except himself has raised the question of jury trial in this connection this afternoon? It may be that others have done so outside. One cannot really ride off on the necessity for a jury verdict because juries have to be directed according to law, and if the law is itself defective they will not come to a sane verdict.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is perfectly right in saying that the question of whether these matters should be put to a jury to resolve has not been raised in your Lordships' House this afternoon, but, as he implied, it has been raised in the country by some members of a not so silent majority.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the fact that it has been suggested in the Press that juries are being picked in this matter for their probable opinions?


My Lords, this is the point which the noble and learned Lord raised, the question of the right of peremptory challenge. What I said—and I think that the noble and learned Lord would agree—is that if this matter was going to be looked at it would have to be looked at in a wider context.


My Lords, would the Minister bear in mind that there has been support and anxiety from all sections and all parts of this House? Would he look at this with a greater sense of urgency, because the country is deeply disturbed about the standards now being set in literature of this sort? No doubt this is the sort of measure that might be started in this House, and it would be nice to have something we could all agree about, instead of dividing about.


My Lords, the Government will certainly look at any proposal put to them, but I emphasise that changing the law in this matter is not as simple as some Members of your Lordships' House seem to believe.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend—and I do so as a virtuous young man—whether it is probably not a mistake to launch prosecutions against books of this kind, because the only result of those prosecutions is to swell their circulation a hundredfold?


My Lords, as I have indicated, it is a difficult matter for the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions—it would be, I suspect, whatever the state of the law was—to decide whether to launch a prosecution against a particular book. No doubt the noble Lord's point is one factor at the back of their minds. Nevertheless, we should be a little hesitant before we reproach them in this particular situation.


My Lords, the noble Lord says that it is not so easy to change things as might be thought, but may I ask him whether he would agree that where there's a will there's a way?

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Shepherd)

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene. I know that this is a matter over which there is considerable concern, but my concern at the moment is that we have been on this Question for eight minutes and we have 36 speakers in a subsequent debate. I think that we ought to try to bring Question Time to a reasonably early conclusion.

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