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Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : Socialism has many elements. People such as A. J. Ayer have pointed out that Socialism has two elements. One is emotive and the other is descriptive. To the Government, Socialism is a boo word. To the Labour party, it is a hurrah word. People also try to use the word for good or ill-natured purposes. The Government have referred to bad regimes, bad systems and bad results. They have tried to build up the notion that Socialism is a boo word. To counter that attack, one could talk about capitalist nations where there has been exploitation--for example, in Chile and Brazil. However, that does not get us very far. We should analyse the great potential of Socialism.
I believe, with my righ hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), that Socialism and democracy are interlinked. Their values are universal and timeless. Socialism had to formulate its ideas about capitalism and clarify them. Capitalism clarified its ideas in response to feudalism. At that time it was a revolutionary notion. We are responding to the failure of capitalism. When we discuss the future of Socialism, therefore, we have to refer to capitalism.
The Conservative party's capitalist ideas are based on certain assumptions about human nature. The Conservatives build up theories which they believe have firm foundations, but which easily collapse. They believe in individual self-interest. To them, there is no such thing as society beyond the family and individuals must do what they want. Some of them want wealth, while others want power. Some want to exploit people, while others just want to laze around. According to Conservative philosophy, that leads to a self-regulating system in both the economic and the political market place. It leads to the return of the workhouse mentality of the 19th century which said that if people are unable to provide for themselves and their families that is bad, they are both lazy and inadequate and they must be prodded to reform their ways. As a result we hear a lot of the Conservative nonsense about social provision.
The Government have developed the principle of free competition between capitalist countries. They want capitalist Governments to keep control. However, Marx demonstrated that capitalism develops into monopolistic capitalism--that large units become successful and powerful, with influence throughout the world. Exploitation is frequently associated with monopolistic capitalism. The development of capitalism in Britain has been associated with a form of parliamentary democracy, and certainly with parliamentary activity. It was developed to take power from feudalism and to share the spoils among its own class because people could not trust each other. Initially, democracy in Britain consisted of a vote among the property-owning classes who had a stake in the nation--a vote among men who would share things out among themselves. Democracy grew out of the struggle of working people and their organisations. The Chartists' struggle in the 19th century produced three massive petitions, similar to the petition that we saw today but which was not allowed to be presented in full. Those petitions sought to extend the franchise to the people.
Petitioning rights are of great historical interest as, theoretically, they allow working people to express their views without duress. Today, not for the television
Column 1362cameras but so that right hon. and hon. Members could see what was taking place, the petition should have been presented to us in full.
Because the Chartists limited their protests to adult male suffrage, the Suffragettes continued the struggle to extend democracy. What does capitalism do when faced with democracy? It either seeks to kid, con and contain democracy, as the wets did when they controlled the Conservative party, or, as now, it engages in confrontation. It seeks to undermine such institutions as the National Health Service, which is based on the entirely different principle of a mass democracy deciding what it needs for its own benefit and welfare. If democracy becomes uncomfortable for capitalism, capitalists ditch it. That is what happened in Chile. A famous editorial in The Times said that democracy in Chile had to go because the economic base of capitalist competition had to remain so that tomorrow democracy could be rebuilt.
When it comes to the crunch, capitalists do not favour a democratic system. In Britain, the democratic system is fiddled and fixed. The poll tax is a deliberate device to limit the franchise. Already, in England alone, 90,000 people are missing from last year's electoral register, due to registration factors, according to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. Those registration factors must involve poll tax provisions.
People are terrified and worried about having to pay the poll tax, and in desperation many are refusing to register. The Government are seeking to squash them. At the same time, a Bill has been introduced to extend the franchise to 3 million expatriates on a voluntary basis. A voluntary franchise is an obnoxious notion as the franchise should be there for everyone. The people who have been squeezed off the electoral register are replaced by people who live overseas, who are not part of our society, who are not concerned about the services that should be provided, and are not worried about defending the Health Service. I prefer to talk about what people are supposed to get out of the system rather than what they contribute. In any case, that measure is inconsistent with the Government's arguments about accountability in support of the poll tax.
That is only part of what the Government are doing to attack freedom, civil liberties and the rights of the individual. Socialism is a doctrine concerned with the individual's self-fulfilment and benefit and development within a social context. If we believe in society and the need for mutual assistance and help, we should look to Socialist solutions. The values of Socialism are co-operation, mutual assistance, participation and social equality. A pre-Socialist--Rousseau--said that no person should be so weak as to have to sell himself and no one should be powerful enough to be able to purchase him. That is the equality that is needed if a democratic system is to operate properly. Socialists see in human beings the potential for co -operation and collective activity and recognise that those values must be put into practice if we are to tackle the vast problems to be seen throughout the world.
The case for Socialism and the extension of democracy has been expressed by my right hon. and hon. Friends when referring to the problem of homelessness, for example. A recent UNICEF report deals with starvation and death among the children of the world, with one child dying every two minutes. That is one of the many problems which need to be tackled, but it will not be
Column 1363tackled unless we act collectively. We must co-operate and act as moral beings. Individualism, self-help and the feathering of nests is abhorrent to Socialist values.
Mr. Barnes : I shall not give way because time is short. The massive changes that are taking place in eastern Europe present opportunities and possibilities for advancing democracy and, therefore, advancing Socialism.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) : There are two Conservative Members in their places who participated with me in a recent weekend study trip to Berlin. I am sure that they will agree with Donald Burton, the political adviser who briefed us in Berlin on the political developments there, that the people of East Berlin do not want the Stalinism of Honecker but neither do they want the capitalism of the West. They seek a third way--a democratic way. Mr. Burton told us also that what had happened in East Berlin had little to do with Governments and the military and everything to do with people power.
Eastern Europe faces massive problems, including nationalism and the power of the Church. The Church can exercise hierachical influences and controls, and even clashes of a racist nature. There is, however, the possibility of a new democracy, which means that the people will have a say. In effect, they are saying, "We do not want to be exploited any longer and we shall act together."
We in the West are pleased that we have something to offer. Hungarians and others come to London to watch Parliament operating and to take the lessons that they have learnt back to Hungary. They want to know how we function. That being so, we must take the high ground. We must learn from the developments that are taking place in eastern Europe. We must not think that we have all the answers. We must build upon our tradition of democracy, involvement and participation, including petitions.
Fully-fledged Socialism is not problem-free when it is sought to advance it. There will be a long haul before we can establish Socialism in the United Kingdom or on a pan-European basis. There are problems to overcome here and throughout the western democracies. The values of Conservative Members, the mass media, history and tradition, and the powers that they have exercised have caused their values to be reflected in the views of the people instead of the people reflecting Socialist views. There is a great deal of work to be done and we must start doing it. The Labour and trade union movement must increase its campaigning activities.
There are lessons to be learnt from Keir Hardie, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). Keir Hardie and his supporters used to work like mad. They published a journal entitled "Labour Leader" and carried bundle after bundle of copies of it to distribute. They walked miles and miles to meetings. They used to engage in massive activity with the trade union movement until things started to break in their direction. I see that happening among Democratic Socialists in small areas within Europe. The Workers party in Ireland is now emerging as a powerful force. It has its roots within the community and is growing
Column 1364in strength with every election. In Malta-- a smaller area, but of significance recently--the Labour party had to fight the hierarchy of the Church for 16 years. The Maltese nation is Catholic and it was claimed that people would be excommunicated if they associated with the Labour party. The Maltese Labour party introduced a welfare state and transformed the heritage that Britain had left. Campaigning and mobilisation is easier as it is a small nation with different traditions and fine weather. We need to learn from some of those examples in the way we struggle and advance to Socialism.
Mr. Skinner : The Tories who started the debate today have a lot to learn. They came here to launch a massive attack on Socialism but after half an hour the balance of power had swung to the Opposition. Now they are in such a mess that the Whips have been running round the House trying to find more Tory Members to support them. They do not have 100 people in the House to stop the debate--that shows how frail and fragile they have become --and they do not have the guts to vote on the motion.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) regularly regales the House with how much of a democrat he is. He knows, because he has spoken to his Whip, that there was an agreement between the two sides as to how the debate should go. Yet he is deliberately talking out the debate. Does that not show that he is no democrat, despite his mouthings to the contrary?
Mr. Barnes : A recent report in The Guardian showed that Mr. David Hart, an adviser to the Prime Minister, had been supporting a publication called "British Briefing" which maligns certain Labour Members as Communist stooges. Conservative Members have described Communism in such broad terms that people who write for Marxism Today and the Morning Star could be said to be the same people. Yet those organisations have considerable conflicts.
"British Briefing" described me as
"an emerging, vigorous, Stalinist underminer of Parliamentary democracy".
No doubt that description appeals to the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett), but how can that be consistent with the analysis that I have just given about the need for democracy to be seen to be part of Socialism, and the things that I have done about democracy in the House? I was surprised on coming here to find that I had turned into a bourgeois democrat defending the system in the House. The defence of that system was one of the rights needed by working people. My Re-enfranchisement of the People Bill would extend the franchise and overcome the problem of the poll tax, and my Petitioners' Rights Bill is clearly needed in the light of what has taken place today.
Mr. Robertson : Perhaps Mr. David Hart, whether he works from Downing street or wherever, should know that the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton)--whose debate this is--visited Czechoslovakia in 1988 as a guest of the Government there. Perhaps "British Briefing" will identify the hon. Member for Tatton, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) and for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) as being a great danger to the state.
Column 1365Mr. Barnes : The reason why information is given about me in "British Briefing" is that I opened a Morning Star bazaar in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Some fine comrades work for that organisation, who before the May day organisations, which are massive in Chesterfield, were at the core of the work of the Chesterfield trades council.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A number of times in the House, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) has advocated breaking the law by not paying the community charge. Is it in order for an hon. Member who persistently advocates breaking the law to continue to advocate democracy when he does not believe in it?
That, at the sitting on Wednesday 20th December, Standing Order No. 54 (Consolidated Fund Bills) shall have effect as if for the words nine o'clock in the morning', in line 15, there were substituted the words eight o'clock in the morning'.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]
Ordered, That, at the sitting on Tuesday 19th December-- (1) Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of estimates) shall have effect with the insertion, in paragraph (3)(a), after the words "at seven o'clock", of the words "or three hours after the commencement of those proceedings, whichever is the later" ; and at the conclusion of those proceedings, notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph (5) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of estimates) and paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 53 (Questions on voting of estimates, &c.) regarding the time at which the Question shall be put, Mr. Speaker shall then put successively the Questions necessary to dispose of those proceedings and any Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on all other estimates appointed for consideration that day ;
(2) If proceedings under paragraph (1) of this Order have not been completed before seven o'clock, the Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means for consideration at that hour shall stand over until the conclusion of such proceedings ; and
Column 1366(3) The Private Business may be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours after it has been entered upon.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]
That Mr. Alastair Goodlad be discharged from the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House and Mr. Greg Knight be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]
That Mr. William Cash be discharged from the Select Committee on Consolidation, &c. Bills and Miss Ann Widdecombe be added to the Committee. -- [Mr. Dorrell.]
That Mr. William Cash be discharged from the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments and Miss Ann Widdecombe be added to the Committee-- [Mr. Dorrell.]
That Mr. Alan Meale be discharged from the Select Committee on European Legislation and Dr. Norman A. Godman be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]
That Mr. John Reid be discharged from the Select Committee on Public Accounts and Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea West) be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]
That Mr. George Howarth be discharged from the Select Committee on Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Mr. Mike Watson be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]
That Mr. Graham Allen be discharged from the Select Committee on Members' Interests and Mr. Harry Barnes be added to the Committee-- [Mr. Dorrell.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill) : Violence and children in pornography is not a pleasant subject at any time. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me, because some of the matters that I want to relate are not easy to talk about.
Those issues trouble people deeply. As a scene-setter to the debate, I mention to the House a survey conducted over the past two weekends in my constituency by 20 Liverpool women. It underlines the seriousness with which people regard pornography and the degradation of those who are often involved in violent and repulsive acts. Five hundred and two women aged between 14 and 60 were surveyed. They were asked their opinion on the sale of soft porn : 72 per cent. found the display of such magazines offensive ; 86 per cent. thought that the magazines cheapened women generally ; 76 per cent. saw a link between porn magazines and the sexual physical abuse of women ; and 80 per cent. would prefer that local newsagents voluntarily stopped selling porn, but 75 per cent. were in favour of a legal ban on newsagents selling such material.
That information is a microcosm of general public opinion. The feeling is shared among hon. Members and many people outside that action is needed to tackle this deep problem. Above all, it is Parliament's duty to cultivate respect for individual human decency in our society.
This afternoon, I want to mention women and children who are portrayed in or who suffer as a result of pornography. All of us will have been sickened at various moments when we have read of some new atrocious crime committed against women or children. The Liverpool Echo has reported a number of cases, and perhaps the most graphic occurred in February, when a woman was raped and sexually assaulted by five men in a public house. The circumstances were similar to those in the film "The Accused". Unfortunately, as is often the case, the woman did not press charges, possibly through fear. It is hard to believe that the perpetrators of such offences are members of the same planet, let alone the same country. We must face the fact that there are men who fill their minds with a diet of pornography and then act upon such influences.
Let me give a few examples from the past 18 months. In October 1988, a woman and her 14-year-old daughter were attacked by a hooded man in their home in a Suffolk village. The mother had her clothes cut off with a knife before she was raped and the daughter was indecently assaulted. One may ask : how could a man do such a thing? The police believe that they found a clue to his behaviour when they discovered in his home a scrapbook of cuttings from pornographic magazines and "sordid and sinister stories with a recurring theme of complete domination and defilement of woman and young girls."
In Leicester last December, a man who raped his stepdaughter and tried to have intercourse with her younger sister was sentenced to 14 years in gaol. The offences had continued for a six-year period. It is surely legitimate to ask : how did the stepfather influence his young victim? He did so by showing her illustrations from pornographic magazines.
Column 1368In Lincoln last December, a man who sexually abused a four-year-old girl was put on probation only for a year because the girl was "extraordinarily well versed in sexual knowledge".
Where did that four-year-old girl obtain such knowledge? She had been shown pornographic videos in her home.
In Putney in the summer of 1988, a rapist who had committed a series of attacks, involving gagging and threatening a woman with a knife, was sentenced to 18 years in prison. The police believe that he copied his ideas for his rapes from the bondage magazine "The Trap" which he had been reading.
These are not isolated examples. Researchers in the United States of America have identified the stages through which sex offenders go, leading up to their crimes, and the role that pornography can play in them. One of the leading researchers is Dr. Victor Cline, a clinical psychologist at the university of Utah, who has treated several hundred sex offenders over many years. Almost all his clients use pornography, and he describes four common factors that result in this condition.
The first is addiction. In Cline's words, "they got hooked." The pornographic material provided a sexual stimulant. One patient could not stay away from pornography even when he was offered $1,000 to do so for 90 days. The second stage is escalation. Cline's patients could not stop with soft pornography. As time went on, they required more explicit, rougher and more deviant kinds of sexual material. A dramatic example of escalation is the case of Ted Bundy, the serial killer and sex attacker who was executed in Florida in January. Some hon. Members will have seen a video of an interview that he gave the night before he died. Bundy candidly told how he started by buying girlie magazines in a local shop when he was 13 or 14, but by his early 20s he was buying the most shocking material.
The third stage is desensitisation, when shocking materials become commonplace and acceptable. Increasingly, Cline's clients felt, "Everybody does this, so it must be OK." The fourth stage is acting it out sexually. Cline says that eventually clients tended to act out what they had seen. That is what Ted Bundy did. He no longer got satisfaction from merely looking. He felt that he had to carry out those actions.
Addiction, escalation, desensitisation and then emulation. That is why we should be so worried about the growth in pornography. Society is allowing seeds to be sown through the sales of pornography. They are reaped in a harvest of sex crime, violence, sexual harassment and wrong attitudes towards women.
I understand why some feminists describe pornography as causing incitement to sexual hatred. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) on highlighting this issue and in particular on her involvement in the Off the Shelf campaign to get pornography off the shelves of leading newsagents. Although little research has been conducted in the United Kingdom, I think that there would be widespread acceptance of Cline's model. For example, in February Ray Wyre, a former probation officer who has had wide experience of treating sex offenders, spoke at a seminar in the House of Lords, that had been organised by CARE--Christian Action Research Education--about what he called the "normalising" impact of pornography. Rapists, child molesters and others see pornographic magazine and videos available for
Column 1369sale on every high street, think that this is accepted by society and then believe that women want to be dominated by men.
In quoting Cline's research and Ray Wyre's comments I am not trying to suggest that all sex crime can be explained away by the influence of pornography. That would be a naive view which I do not hold. In addition, I do not believe that because a man is addicted to pornography that lessens his crime. Rape is rape and murder is murder. However, if Cline and Wyre are right, and many other researchers believe they are, if we tackle the prevalence and the acceptability of pornography in our society we can only do good and help to prevent further crime.
As the head of the obscene publications squad at Scotland yard until this February, chief superintendent Iain Donaldson, said, "The thought is father to the action."
The first step is to ensure that research similar to that of Cline, Zillerman, Malmuth and other American researchers is undertaken in this country.
Welcome though the Minister's announcement in answer to my parliamentary question was when he said yesterday that research is to be commissioned, I want to press him further about the nature of that research. I was also delighted that last week, in response to a written question from me, the Minister said that his Department would review the available evidence of the links between pornography and sex crime. As I have demonstrated today, there is a considerable amount of evidence, anecdotal and academic, that any review should consider.
I am concerned and would like to ask the Minister about the review's terms of reference. Why will it not be open to the public to submit evidence? This matter deeply involves the public and it would be absurd to exclude them from the review and the debate that should follow from it.
Who exactly will undertake the work? Why will it not include the commissioning of new research? How will the Government proceed once the review is completed? In particular, when the review is undertaken, will the Government examine the examples that I presented today? There has been no funding from the Home Office of such work up to now, so unless we look at the type of examples I mentioned and what has happened elsewhere, and accept evidence that can be submitted by outside interested organisations, it is doubtful whether any review of existing research will be sufficient. We could predict the outcome of such an inquiry today.
We need to conduct research into the factors involved in the imprisonment of sex offenders. I know that the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) posed similar questions in a letter to the Home Secretary. We are both concerned that this should not be merely a paper exercise. Many Members are concerned about the issue. The Minister will know that 180 Members have now signed early-day motion 27 calling for a study of the issue. Those Members, like me, were interested in a public review of the matter, so I hope that the Minister will clarify the terms of what he has decided should happen.
Research and the proposed review is the first issue on which I want the Minister to speak today. The second is the present law on obscenity and its enforcement. We received some welcome news last week when the Home Office confirmed that it would like the current law to be tightened with a new definition of obscenity, describing it as something
Column 1370"grossly offensive to a reasonable person".
However, it is one thing to announce the need for change and entirely another actually to make the change. I believe that the law needs immediate amendment.
I shall speak particularly about printed material, such as magazines and books. I wonder when the Minister last visited a newsagent and looked at the sort of magazines now being stocked. I hope that he might be too ashamed to do so. I am no prude, but I was deeply shocked when I discovered the sort of material that can be bought even within a mile of this House, without going to a licensed sex shop or specialised mail order firm or asking for material under the counter. Many shops now sell 10, 15 or 20 magazines catering for every whim and fetish.
Two trends particularly disturb me. The Minister has a copy of a magazine called "Razzle" which includes pictures of a woman dressed in leather with her hands in chains. Part of the myth of pornography is that women are portrayed as enjoying such degradation. This is far from the worst example that I could have chosen, but it is just a few steps away from the sort of magazine used by the Putney rapist. Is it acceptable within the terms of the Obscene Publications Act 1959? Would it be caught by the new, "grossly offensive" definition? I certainly find it grossly offensive.
The second matter of concern is the recent appearance of so-called "shaver" material in magazines. "Shaver" denotes the fact that women have had their pubic hair shaved off before posing for photographs. Why do such magazines sell? I can only presume that it is to satisfy the desire of some to fantasise about young girls. I agree with an article in The Independent in April that catalogued the kind of material available in a typical high street :
"What is being represented are female children inviting sexual access and what is being engineered is the sexual arousal of adult males by their bodies."
Child pornography is illegal in this country and I must commend the police for all that they have done, and are doing, to try to stamp it out. But is not a new generation of paedophiles being succoured on this shaver material? How do such magazines measure up against the 1959 Act or the proposed new definition? Is the Minister happy that such material is available freely in newsagents next to school playgrounds where young innocent girls are playing?
What little confidence I had in the Obscene Publications Act 1959 was shattered when I heard of the case of "Under the Rooftops of Paris." This is a book written by Henry Miller which includes scenes of bestiality, sex with children, and a particularly foul scene when during a mass a priest urinates in the communion wine, dips a wafer in the wine, wipes it on the genitalia of a naked woman lying on the altar and then tosses it to the congregation. When the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) sent a summary of the book to the Solicitor-General and asked what action would be taken, he received the reply that the DPP had decided not to institute proceedings. I find the reasoning somewhat difficult. It was to the effect that "the DPP has weighed the factors relevant to the discharge of the burden of proof by the prosecution and those bearing upon the public interest in cases of this type".
I presume that this legal gobbledegook means "We do not think we would win". If that is the case, I believe the Government should be ashamed that they have not yet
Column 1371tightened our laws to protect the weak and innocent, women and children who are damaged by those who buy and read such material. A change in the law is urgently needed. I challenge the Minister to tell the House when he will introduce new legislation to give the police the backing that they need to tackle the rising tide of pornography. He should not rely on private Members' legislation to deal with such an important issue.
The Broadcasting Bill, which is to have its Second Reading on Monday, brings television and radio under the Obscene Publications Act yet the Government have admitted that the existing definition is inadequate. The Minister should use the opportunity presented by that Bill to tighten up the definition of obscenity. I shall listen with interest to the Minister's response.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) on calling our attention to a topic that unites all of us- -the menace of child pornography and other objectionable material that glories and promotes sexual violence. He referred to a number of horrifying crimes and unpleasant publications from which he had drawn disturbing conclusions. In responding I shall range a little more widely to say something about our controls on obscene and indecent material in all its various forms. I shall also take the opportunity to respond to the calls for new research into links between pornography and sexual violence. Finally, I shall say something about the international aspects with an eye to the single market in 1992.
First, on child pornography itself, for obvious reasons we cannot say categorically how much child pornography is being supplied, or whether it is getting nastier.
The trade is covert and we can make our assessments only on the basis of material uncovered by police and customs officers. They tell us that they have discovered some very nasty material indeed. There is no argument about the need to stamp that trade out. There are no considerations of freedom of expression or artistic licence. We all join the hon. Member for Mossley Hill in wanting this vile trade ended.
However, when we consider pornography more generally, the arguments may be less clear cut. One man's pornography may be another man's art. It is sobering to think that "Lady Chatterley's Lover" has moved from being fit for a prosecution as obscene to be being fit for bedtime reading on BBC radio all in the space of a very few years. That illustrates the difficulty of balancing the sometimes competing claims of decency and freedom of expression.
The Obscene Publications Act 1959, to which the hon Gentleman referred, remains after 30 years the main instrument for dealing with pornography at its worst. It would be wrong to think that that Act is ineffective. However, the number of people prosecuted under it varies considerably from year to year, for no obvious reason. In 1987, 121 people were proceeded against while 583 were proceeded against in 1984. The number of convictions per year has ranged from 93 to 429. The Act does get results.
Column 1372However, convictions are only part of the story. The Obscene Publications Act 1959 provides for obscene material to be seized and impounded. Last year, the Metropolitan police seized more than 650, 000 items and more than 800,000 items were seized the year before that.
Although the 1959 Act is being used with effect, as the figures show, the Government view is that it could, with benefit, be strengthened. The test of what is obscene laid down in the 1959 Act is material which, taken as a whole, will tend to deprave and corrupt those exposed to it. That is very close indeed in intention to the view expressed by the hon. Gentleman so very eloquently. It can sometimes be difficult for the prosecution to convince a jury that the material in question will have a depraving and corrupting effect.
Legislation on obscenity is by tradition left to private Members and the Government are reluctant--rightly, I believe--to set that tradition aside. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Government have indicated their support for attempts to strengthen the 1959 Act most recently in 1986-87 by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth). His Bill would have substituted a test of "grossly offensive to a reasonable person" for the "deprave and corrupt" test, but the House will recall that the attempt failed to make enough progress in the time available.
Whether or not there is any direct and provable link between what people see and what they do, we have acted in numerous ways to uphold standards of public decency. With our support, the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981 reached the statute book, prohibiting indecent displays in public places. If the provisions of that Act are used at the minimum people will no longer find themselves or their children confronted with objectionable material in shops and other places. The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 provides, in section 2, for a local authority to take power to restrict sex shops and sex cinemas in its area.
One of the most important measures was the private Member's Bill introduced with Government support by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) which became the Video Recordings Act 1984. Under the Act, videos which are to be supplied to the public must--unless they come within specified exemptions--have a classification certificate issued by the British Board of Film Classification. As a result the "video nasty" has become, for most people, a thing of the past and the classifications given by the board mean that parents have a good guide to the suitability of a video work for their children. The system has, in our judgment, worked outstandingly well.
We know, of course, that there is still some illicit, under-the-counter trade in such products. The police's resources for tackling that are inevitably limited. That is why, in the Criminal Justice Act 1988 the Government extended powers to enforce the Video Recordings Act 1984 to local authority trading standards officers. The effect has been dramatic, marked by an immediate upsurge in the number of requests from trading standards departments to the British Board of Film Classification for certificates of evidence that particular works were not classified, or were not classified suitably for the age group to which they were being supplied.
The Government are also committed to upholding standards in broadcasting. The new Broadcasting Standards Council has a special role to play. Hon. Members will know that it has been active. The