Customs Consolidation (Amendment)

– in the House of Commons at 4:23 pm on 2nd July 1986.

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Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith , Islington South and Finsbury 4:23 pm, 2nd July 1986

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to update the law affecting the importation of obscene articles and to increase the penalties therefor and to amend the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and the Customs Consolidation Act 1876. The present law is completely anomalous. Any book or article imported into the United Kingdom is subject to the Customs Consolidation Act 1876. That Act leaves interpretation wide open to individual Customs officers, and sometimes gives rise to highly peculiar decisions about the seizure, impounding or prosecution of particular items. However, any book or article that is home produced and published within the country is subject to the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which carries with it the important test of a tendency to deprave and corrupt, along with the potential defence of literary merit.

For all its faults, the Obscene Publications Act is much better, and much more tightly drawn than the Customs Consolidation Act. It leaves less scope for the operation of arbitrary censorship. Sometimes, the same book can be treated differently under each of the two Acts. For example, a few weeks ago we learnt with sadness of the death of Jean Genet, the French author. Upon his death, the press rightly lavished much praise upon him. His book "Querelle" has been widely available, quite legally, and is approved under the Obscene Publications Act.

However, two years ago that hook was impounded by Customs when it was being imported into Britain, and was made the subject of a prosecution under the Customs Consolidation Act. It is surely nonsense that precisely the same material should be legally available under one Act because it is produced in this country, but should be open to prosecution under another Act, because it is being imported. There is an obvious need to clear up that anomaly and to bring all material, whether home-produced or imported, under precisely the same definition. That is what my Bill seeks to do: to bring all such material within the scope of the Obscene Publications Act 1959.

The law is not only anomalous but has, in recent months, been thrown into confusion. The European Court recently ruled in the Conegate case that any material that was imported from the EEC should be subject to the same provisions as material produced here, thus creating a difference between material imported from the EEC and material imported from non-EEC countries.

Further confusion has arisen following the Customs and Excise decision of last Friday to drop all its charges against the Gay"s the Word bookshop in Marchrnont street, London. It was right that it should take that decision. The outdated law—the Customs Consolidation Act—was being operated in a discriminatory way. I am delighted that that will no longer happen, but the decision of Customs and Excise leaves a legal uncertainty that requires clarification.

This Bill is the best way of clarifying the situation. Not only is the law anomalous and uncertain, but the existing state of the law inappropriately diverts resources which could be much better employed in the real protection of this country. With a flood of hard drugs coming into Britain from abroad, and with reductions in the staffing of the Customs and Excise service, Customs officers must have better things to do than to act as censors of what the British public can or cannot read or buy.

The Bill is a simple measure which carries within it a simple point. It is supported by the Booksellers Association, the Publishers Association, the Society of Authors, the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Society of Civil and Public Servants, which organises staff within the Customs and Excise service. The Bill will help to make sense of an anomalous, absurd and out-dated bit of law that has been, and can be, used in a profoundly discriminatory fashion.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Chris Smith, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Alex Carlile, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Alfred Dubs, Miss Janet Fookes, Ms. Harriet Harman, Mr. Michael Meadowcroft, Mr. Peter Pike, Ms. Jo Richardson and Mr. Clive Soley.