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Special Test of Obscenity in Relation to Persons Under the Age of I8

Clause 2 – in the House of Commons at 1:45 pm on 25th April 1986.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Alfred Dubs Mr Alfred Dubs , Battersea 1:45 pm, 25th April 1986

I beg to move amendment No. 12, in page 3, line 17, leave out '18' and insert '16'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 15, in page 3, line 32, leave out '18' and insert '16'.

No. 16, in page 3, line 40, leave out '18' and insert `16'.

No. 17, in page 3, line 42, at end add `; except that this provision shall not apply in circumstances where the visibility or access is available solely by reason of a person's employment at a place of publication.'.

No. 18, in page 4, line 2, leave out '18' and insert '16'.

No. 24, in title, line 4, leave out '18' and insert '16'.

Photo of Mr Alfred Dubs Mr Alfred Dubs , Battersea

All the amendments seek to make one change to clause 2. We wish to change the age of 18 to 16 throughout. Of course, clause 2 deals with printed material and specifically with pictures. Its intention is to have a more rigorous test for those age under 18 for material that might be obscene or that might have a tendency to deprave or corrupt. A difficulty arises if the cut-off comes at the age of 18, because a jury would have to look differently at material seen by those aged under 18. It is particularly difficult to draw the line at the age of 18. We would all be very reluctant to allow children to see certain printed material and pictures, but the maturity of teenagers and the responsibilities that come to them both legally and in fact from the age of 16 onwards, make it difficult for any jury to decide that some material is unsuitable for viewing by those aged under 18—for example, by a 17-year-old—but all right for those aged 18 or over. If I was a juror and had to make that decision, I would not know how to react.

Of course, there is some material that should not be published, but we are talking about material that is deemed to be all right for adults but not for children. If the cut-off line was drawn at the age of 16, it would be much more sensible.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash , Stafford

The hon. Gentleman had a simple argument to put. Now that he has put it, will he be good enough to allow us to proceed with the rest of the Bill?

Photo of Mr Alfred Dubs Mr Alfred Dubs , Battersea

I have been on my feet for only two or two and a half minutes. It is not always obvious that I have been so quickly persuasive as the hon. Gentleman now suggests.

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Chair, Treasury & Civil Service Sub-Committee

Unlike the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash), I cannot follow the logic of the argument. If a jury was asked to assess the effects of such material on a juvenile, it would have to undertake a mind-boggling feat of imagination that would be difficult for any jury, whether the age involved was 15, 16, 17 or 18. Is it not more logical to accept the conventional age of majority, 18, and to say that adulthood begins there? I see no point in splitting hairs or in lowering the age to 16 or 17. What is the logic in inserting the age of 16, when we all now know that the age of majority is 18?

Photo of Mr Alfred Dubs Mr Alfred Dubs , Battersea

I understand my hon. Friend's point, but I do not agree with it. Ultimately, one must take a subjective view of the issue. If I had to serve on a jury, I would find it almost impossible to draw any distinction between the suitability of material for 18-year-olds and the suitability of material for 17-year-olds. The younger the age at which one has to make the distinction, the easier, in some ways, it becomes. That is the purpose of the amendment. After all, the age of consent for heterosexual behaviour is 16. That assumes a certain maturity, and I am applying that criterion to this set of amendments. That is why, on balance—it is a difficult balance to draw—I prefer the age of 16 for the purposes of clause 2

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood 2:15 pm, 25th April 1986

I support these amendments for the simple reason that it is crazy to allow people to marry at 16 but to prevent them from buying at their local newsagents whatever porny magazines we unfortunately produce in this country.

I have very little patience for the Bill or for those who support it. I do not believe that it will deal with the major problem in society which is worrying people. The Bill's first clause, applying the Obscene Publications Act 1959 to television, will not do much to change anything broadcast on television. It will simply create great uncertainty for the makers of television programmes. We all know that things that are found to be obscene are so extreme that nothing produced on television would be caught within that definition.

The second part of the Bill provides that if porny magazines are supplied, if the amendment is accepted, to anyone under 16, or displayed in a place to which under 16-year-olds have access, there will be a test as to whether these magazines will deprave or corrupt an under 16-year-old.

The likely effect of that is that the porny magazines that are displayed in newsagents will be put in packages. I believe that that would be welcomed, but it is a minor thing. In the meantime, every day of every week, of every year, more than 10 million pictures of naked women deliberately posed in sexually provocative ways are circulated up and down the land to men, women and children. These pictures are seen by at least double that number of adults and by many children. They have a really damaging effect on the population. That is the view of thousands of women.

The hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) said that he had received nearly 1,000 letters. I have received 3,052 letters and messages of support. Of those, 2,000 were from women and 1,000 from what I would call decent men. Of these letters, 1,241 came from a wide range of organisations—Tory organisations, church organisations, Labour party organisations and trade unions. Spontaneous petitions were collected in towns, cities and villages by women, and these were often supported by men.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

These petitions were supported by men. I shall give way briefly to my hon. Friend, but I wish to complete my point.

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Chair, Treasury & Civil Service Sub-Committee

I would like to inquire whether I would come within my hon. Friend's category of decent men? My hon. Friend might like to know that one Conservative Member who did express support for the page 3 girls was criticised by a group of Conservative associations. That was the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens).

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. I realise that the hon. Lady is completing her preamble, but we must deal with the amendment. It covers a fairly narrow point—whether the age should be 18 or 16.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Dickens Mr Geoffrey Dickens , Littleborough and Saddleworth

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have been named by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). Whatever views I might have about The Sun newspaper, which I deplore the hon. Gentleman bringing into this debate—

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Dickens Mr Geoffrey Dickens , Littleborough and Saddleworth

—I would like you to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that The Sun newspaper—

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. I have allowed both the hon. Gentlemen to get that matter off their chests. We must now return to the amendments.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

I am discussing the effect of the amendment and what it will allow under 16 year olds to see or prevent them seeing, and what will be and what will not be prosecuted. That is a very important consideration of the Bill as amended.

I received a little more than 50 letters of opposition, 36 of which were obscene. These letters were interestingly obscene in that they followed a pattern. They tended to say "Get lost with your silly proposal," or "You only want to get rid of page 3 because you are jealous".

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. The hon. Lady must be fair to the House and to the sponsor of the amendment. She must not discuss another Bill. She must discuss the Bill under consideration and the amendment.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

I shall explain the way in which I am seeking to discuss the amendment, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am trying to discuss what the amended Bill will provide and what will be allowed to be circulated to those under 16 years of age and what will not. I believe strongly that the distortion of attitudes towards women and towards sex throughout society stems from the mass circulation of pictures of naked women posed deliberately in provocative ways. These pictures are circulated in schools and in homes and are commonly to be found on kitchen tables, for example. The problem is glaring and massive. Conservative Members claim to support the Bill, a measure that will have only a marginal effect if it is enacted, yet they are opposed to what I am trying to do. I asked the Government Chief Whip not to oppose my proposal and I received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. I must ask the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) to pay attention to what I am saying. She is being unfair to the House. The amendment before us is a narrow one and the hon. Lady is trying to discuss another Bill, which is grossly out of order. I ask the hon. Lady to take notice of what I am saying.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

Of course I take notice of what you are saying, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You are saying that I must discuss the Bill that is before the House.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

Very well, the amendment to the Bill. The clause provides that certain kinds of porny material cannot be supplied to young people. If the amendment is agreed to, it will be illegal to supply this material to those under 16 years of age, or made available in places where they can obtain it. If it is made available, the test of whether it is obscene will be whether it is likely to deprave and corrupt those under 16 years rather than adults.

Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith , Islington South and Finsbury

Does my hon. Friend agree that much of the material about which she is speaking is available through daily newspapers with mass circulations to those who are between 16 and 18 years of age, to which the amendment specifically relates?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

I agree with my hon. Friend. Surely it is in order to say that the ill that the clause is trying to remedy will not be dealt with fully by the clause as amended. Surely I can argue that the amendment will improve the clause. I have sat in my place since this morning because I wanted to comment on this part of the Bill. I had views on the earlier amendments but I did not intervene because I felt more strongly about the latter part of the Bill and did not want to take the time of the House by making constant speeches. I am now attempting to make a serious contribution and I am not trying to detain the House. I intend to conclude my remarks before 2.30 pm. Bearing in mind the sort of speeches that have been made, it is surely reasonable for me to ask to be allowed to make my speech.

The Bill's approach, and especially that of the clause, even as amended, is mistaken. There is a problem throughout the country, and women especially are agreed that it exists. There is a decadent attitude to sexuality that is spreading and growing. It is fed by the soft porn that appears in newspapers, which are distributed throughout the country. The definition of "deprave and corrupt" is a bad one. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have said that the present obscene publications law does not work well. If we add to it through the Bill, it is still not likely to work well. We need to move in another direction. We must move against material that degrades women and human sexuality. That might be a healthier concept.

The Bill will make no difference to the obscenity law. It is not good enough for the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) to say that there is a problem, that people are worried about the mounting tide of sexual crime, that we must do something about it and so we shall agree to any inefficient piece of legislation that is introduced and throw it at the problem to try to pretend to the public that the problem is being dealt with. That is how I see the Bill and the provisions contained within it.

The hon. Member for Davyhulme was not prepared to act on the mass circulation of pictures of naked women in newspapers. It makes me—

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. The hon. Member for Ladywood was back on track until a moment ago. I invite her to return to the amendment.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn).

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Is my hon. Friend aware that many of those who write to Members of Parliament are far more concerned about the degradation of women in popular newspapers, which make a great deal of money from so doing, than about other issues that have been raised by the hon. Member for Davyhulme?

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. I am sure the hon. Lady will not be tempted to answer that. It is not in order on this amendment.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North makes his own point and I agree with him. As it is out of order I shall not go down that road.

I asked the hon. Member for Davyhulme to incorporate in the Bill my concern about women's degradation—it is a fight I have been trying to wage—but the hon. Member refused to do so. Many Conservative Members who support the Bill have refused to embrace this issue. We are left with a fairly useless Bill which does not deal with the major problems which we face and, indeed, it looks as if the Bill will not be passed. That is regrettable.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Davyhulme

I am obliged to the hon. Lady. I understand her strength of feeling and her grounds for concern. What I find difficult is that, on one hand, the hon. Lady wishes to deal with a much milder form of offensiveness, namely, female nudity, but is not prepared to vote against the explicit pornographic magazines which are made readily available to children and young persons.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I support clause 2, as amended. I regret that the hon. Gentleman did not take the opportunity of his success in the ballot to deal with the most glaring problem, which is distorting attitudes in society. Instead, he has acted against pornographic magazines which are seen by only a small proportion of the population. However, I did support clause 2, as amended.

I have been unable to say all that I wanted to say today. I had hoped that we would reach the Third Reading and then I would have been able to make the speech I had intended to make. Today, the hon. Member for Davyhulme and many of his colleagues have been exposed by the contrary positions they have taken on of the issues in the Bill. They claim to be against pornography and obscenity, yet they will not act against the worst element of it in our society. That is regrettable and it is regrettable that the hon. Member for Davyhulme did not introduce a better Bill.

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Bow and Poplar

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) was in error in one respect when he moved the amendment. My hon. Friend said that amendment No. 12 and the other amendments in the group are concerned with the reduction of the relevant age from 18 years to 16 years. That is not quite right.

Amendment No. 17 makes a separate point. The clause as it stands provides that if a picture available is in a place where a young person may be which may deprave or corrupt that young person, an offence is committed. In general, I agree with that. Amendment No. 17 has become less important with the change from 18 years to 16 years. Many 16 and 17-year-olds may have left school and be working in places where such pictures are available.

It would be absolutely wrong for anybody to be guilty of an offence merely because such a picture is available, not for the purpose of selling it to young people, but because the young person was around that place in the course of his employment. It is true that, by reducing the age to 16, we have cut out the 16 and 17-year-olds working in a particular place.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Dickens Mr Geoffrey Dickens , Littleborough and Saddleworth

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have just received a voting list and would like your guidance. The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) and the Leader of the Opposition have joined in the filibustering on this Bill, which seeks to protect children. Last week, they were both telling the House that Sunday trading—

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

What is the point of order?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Dickens Mr Geoffrey Dickens , Littleborough and Saddleworth

Last week they were telling the House that the shops issue was the greatest moral issue that the country had known.

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Bow and Poplar

You know very well, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that is not a point of order. It was not relevant to the discussion but, apart from that, it was a verb good intervention.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Davyhulme

rose in his place, and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House proceeded to a Division:

Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith , Islington South and Finsbury

(seated and covered): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Chair to accept a closure motion after only a limited debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Yes. I have accepted the closure motion and the House is now coming to a decision on it.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

(seated and covered): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like to clarify what we are voting on. I understand that we are voting on whether to end discussion on this group of amendments and that, if we do, we will move on to the next group.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

That is correct.

Photo of Mr Harry Greenway Mr Harry Greenway , Ealing North

(seated and covered): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you clarify the Bill's future following this Division and any later one? Am I not right in thinking that it will return to the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

I cannot anticipate that. We are voting on the closure. If the motion is carried, we shall proceed at once to a conclusion on the amendment under discussion.

Photo of Mr Harry Greenway Mr Harry Greenway , Ealing North

(seated and covered): I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The House having divided: Ayes 79, Noes 11.

Division No. 159][2.30 pm
AYES
Amess, DavidLewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H.Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)Maclean, David John
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Major, John
Bendall, VivianMarlow, Antony
Benyon, WilliamMather, Carol
Bonsor, Sir NicholasMawhinney, Dr Brian
Boscawen, Hon RobertMayhew, Sir Patrick
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardMellor, David
Bright, GrahamNeubert, Michael
Brooke, Hon PeterNicholls, Patrick
Browne, JohnNormanton, Tom
Cash, WilliamOnslow, Cranley
Chapman, SydneyPawsey, James
Churchill, W. S.Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Dicks, TerryProctor, K. Harvey
Dover, DenRees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
du Cann, Rt Hon Sir EdwardRhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Durant, TonyRidsdale, Sir Julian
Eyre, Sir ReginaldRoe, Mrs Marion
Favell, AnthonyRossi, Sir Hugh
Freeman, RogerSainsbury, Hon Timothy
Gardiner, George (Reigate)Shelton, William (Streatham)
Garel-Jones, TristanShepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Gow, IanSims, Roger
Grant, Sir AnthonyStanbrook, Ivor
Greenway, HarryStanley, Rt Hon John
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Hargreaves, KennethSumberg, David
Harrison, Rt Hon WalterThompson, Donald (Calder V)
Hawkins, C. (High Peak)Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Hayes, J.Thornton, Malcolm
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michaelvan Straubenzee, Sir W.
Howard, MichaelViggers, Peter
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)Wilkinson, John
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Williams, Rt Hon A.
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)Wolfson, Mark
Jackson, Robert
Jessel, TobyTellers for the Ayes:
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Mr. Geoffrey Dickens and
Jones, Robert (Herts W)Mrs. Virginia Bottomley.
Key, Robert
NOES
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Wareing, Robert
Corbyn, JeremyWrigglesworth, Ian
Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)Tellers for the Noes:
McKay, Allen (Penistone)Mr. Chris Smith and
Madden, MaxMrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody.
Mikardo, Ian

Whereupon Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided in the affirmative, because it was not supported by the majority prescribed by Standing Order No. 32 (Majority for Closure).

It being after half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.