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Bus Station (Ambleside)

10.16 pm

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale) : It is a great honour for me to present a petition to the House. Perhaps I may be permitted to read it :

To the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland assembled.

The Humble Petition of the many residents of and visitors to our small town of Ambleside in the heart of the Lake District National Park, which is associated with a petition numbering in total 11,721, of whom 3,060 are constituents of The Lakes Parish


That it supports the Lake District National Park Special Planning Board in its decision to reject proposals for the redevelopment as shops of the old Bus Station in the centre of Ambleside on the grounds that it is over- development of a most sensitive site, lacks any bus station facilities, has insufficient car parking spaces, inadequate delivery arrangements, would generate traffic hazards and exacerbate already chronic traffic congestion in the town. Further, that it seeks to achieve a solution of this protracted problem which satisfies the people of Ambleside and its elected representatives and protects the purposes for which the National Park was founded. Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your honourable House will urge the Secretary of State for the Environment to use the powers granted to him by Parliament to call in the plans for his own decision, or in any case to refuse the appeal, in the hope that he will take account of the overwhelming local and national opinion raised against this redevelopment.

And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray. Thank you, Madam Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity of presenting this petition, which is hugely important to many of my constituents and many people who have a huge love of the Lake district, who see the development as a major threat to one of the jewels of England.

To lie upon the Table.

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Metropolitan Police (Obscene Publications Branch) Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn-- [Mr. Arbuthnot.]

10.19 pm

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton) : I am pleased to have secured the opportunity to raise the anxieties that I and many colleagues on both sides of the House have about the important issue of the future of the obscene publications branch at New Scotland Yard. I am saddened that such a debate is necessary and that the House will have to listen again to a Minister persuading us that all is well and that action arising from the criminal justice Bill will solve all the problems. At least, that is what I expect him to say. I shall be delighted if I am proved wrong.

The Government will be aware that pornography is a multi-million pound industry. Those who work against pornography--the police, Customs and Excise and independent researchers--believe that the material in circulation appears to be becoming more hard-core. A survey reported last week by the university of central Lancashire suggests that computer pornography is available in 10 per cent. of our secondary schools and 2 per cent. of our primary schools. That can be only the start of what is going to become a new outlet for the pornographers, as technology becomes more freely available to our children.

In short, the problem will only get worse unless the Government take decisive action. Last year, I organised an exhibition of the work of the obscene publications branch for Members of both Houses so that they could realise the true extent of the problem of pornography. More than 300 Members attended. They were shocked by what they saw, and commended the commitment and dedication of the personnel of the branch.

The squad does not deal merely with girlie magazines from the newsagent. It deals with the most obscene material available in our nation. Its daily work involves the most perverted of adult pornography, which includes bondage and torture of women, the increasingly graphic computer pornography, and horrific child pornography. It is on the latter area that it has, not surprisingly, chosen to concentrate the majority of its resources. Indeed, the squad has ended the torment of many children.

I am sure that no one in the House tonight would do anything other than thoroughly condemn the increasing amount of pornographic material involving children. All of us agree that everything possible must be done to prosecute those involved.

In my Adjournment debate of May 1993 on the review of the Obscene Publications Act 1959, the then Minister of State acknowledged the place of enforcement in combating the pornographers. He said : "An effective way of dealing with pornography is to hit the pornographer in the pocket. These people are in this business for profit. Effective enforcement of the law is a good way of dealing with the problem."--[ Official Report , 4 May 1993 ; Vol.224, c.164.] I welcome those comments, and the Government's actions on pornography in the criminal justice Bill, particularly the provisions that increase the enforcement powers of the police, especially on child pornography.

While I would still argue that there should be a fundamental review of the obscenity law, I accepted at face

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value the assurance that a central plank in the Government's strategy was effective enforcement of existing law.

Imagine, therefore, my dismay when the Minister of State who will answer the debate tonight acknowledged in March, in reply to a question from the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), that the future of the obscene publications branch was included in the Metropolitan police Commissioner's review of specialist squads. I received information in April from the internal Metropolitan police magazine, "The Job", which confirmed the plans under review. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis is considering whether the excellent and dedicated work done by the squad, in investigating paedophiles, should be undertaken by the already overworked child protection teams. The work done on obscene publications could be devolved to the clubs office in Soho, and the intelligence functions could be transferred to the central intelligence unit.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : I congratulate the hon. Lady on gaining this debate on such a crucial subject. May I quickly remind her that, less than 10 years ago, it was unknown for the police to be proactive in such matters : they were always reactive. Child protection teams always have a reactive response. Only the obscene publications branch has been able to weave its way through the constraints of rules of evidence and to pursue people, which has enabled it to be proactive. Out of a United Kingdom police force of about 100,000 officers, only 14 have been occupied in that proactive way. It will be little short of a criminal act if they are dispensed with.

Mrs. Winterton : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which was most helpful. He has taken some of the words out of my mouth, and has reinforced the case that I intend to make. When news of the review came to my attention, I immediately organised an early-day motion to raise awareness of the proposals and to urge the Home Secretary to ensure that the Commissioner abandons those plans, which demonstrate breathtaking foolishness. More than 160 Members signed the motion, and I am delighted to see so many of them here to support me tonight. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary then confirmed that the Commissioner was reviewing all the specialist operations at the Metropolitan police headquarters. I was a little reassured when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House told me on 21 April that the Home Secretary intends "to ensure that any changes help, rather than hinder, the fight against pornography and paedophilia."--[ Official Report , 21 April 1994 ; Vol. 241, c. 1040.]

How can that be done unless the obscene publications branch is retained as a single unit and strengthened ?

I am a naturally trusting person, but when I heard that the branch had been removed from the 1994 edition of the definitive publication, "Police and Constabulary Almanac", even I was suspicious. The Minister's reply to a recent parliamentary question that that was a mistake is, quite honestly, hard to believe.

I am concerned that there will be change for the sake of change as a result of the review. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has written to me, saying :

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"there is no question whatever of cutting the resources made available for work against pornography".

I am afraid that that typical, civil service language could cover a multitude of sins--indeed, of internal reshuffles.

I am urging the Government not to dismantle the organisation of the branch, which encompasses the greatest expertise on combating pornography that we have in this country. The vague promise of not reducing resources is, frankly, not enough.

I feel most strongly that the effectiveness of the fight against pornography will be greatly inhibited if it is fragmented. Why ? Because there is strength in numbers--the sum of the whole is far greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Together with many colleagues, I believe that the effective way to fight pornography is with a specialised unit that has both national and international contacts. We need a national unit which is able to take an overview of the development of pornography in our schools and on our streets. We need a unit that can investigate child abuse, which often crosses county and national boundaries.

Such investigations place considerable demands on the resources of child protection agencies, and require high levels of strategic and operational co-ordination. We need a unit that can also advise regional vice squads who come across this material less frequently than those in the capital city. The obscene publications branch is a unique national asset. Because of its specialised nature, the branch is able proactively to investigate crimes on the basis of intelligence which can often lead to further crimes being prevented--the very point made by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook).

If the work of the squad is devolved to already pressurised units such as the child protection team, the resources will inevitably become reactive and able to deal with abuse only as it arises. This approach cannot be regarded as

"further strengthening and providing support to those involved in combatting crimes of this nature",

which is the stated Government strategy outlined in a letter from the Home Office to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), one of many Members who have supported this campaign. Some may object that it is the citizens of London who are financing what is often a national resource. I ask the rhetorical question--is this not also the case for the anti- terrorist squad ? Most of the trade in pornography is inevitably centred on the capital, and it is therefore only right that the most prominent squad should be based here.

Computer pornography is a new growth market for pornographers. There are two methods by which individuals are able to obtain this material. The first is on computer disks, which are generally the source of the material found in schools. Secondly, images can be transferred between computers via telephone links. In the increasing global world of computer networks, there is regular traffic in computer data from one side of the world to the other in merely minutes.

In the midst of normal business transactions, there is the vile trade in pornographic images. At the moment, as hon. Members can imagine, this is very difficult to police. The only way to stop it is to target the sources of the material, and this needs international co-operation between police forces. How can this be done if we do not have one central point of expertise with which other national forces can liaise ?

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I am not alone in my views. As I mentioned, more than 160 hon. Members from all parties supported my motion urging the Home Secretary to ensure that the branch is not disbanded. Many have written to my right hon. and learned Friend personally. Nine peers, including a former Home Office Minister and the chairman of the all-party group on children, wrote to The Times expressing their "profound concern" about the proposals, and urging the Government to ensure that the squad was strengthened.

Esther Rantzen, who helped launch the Child Line charity, said : "I find it almost impossible to believe . . . We should be expanding this unit and allowing its expertise to be used for training other forces."

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has also raised its concerns with hon. Members and believes : "the loss of the Obscene Publications Branch would seriously limit the effectiveness of professional child protection agencies in London, nationally and internationally. The only people to benefit from such as move would be paedophiles themselves."

No doubt the Minister will tell me that the decision on the operation of the branch is for the Metropolitan police Commissioner. Clearly the day-to- day management is under the responsibility of the Commissioner, but the policy decision to remove such a vital squad must come before the London police authority, which is my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary himself. As he has specifically left that police authority in his hands, I urge him to use his power to ensure that this effective unit is maintained--indeed, strengthened.

The review of the future of the branch is entirely misconceived, and totally at odds with the spirit of the provisions in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. The continuing uncertainties will be a major boost to those involved in the vile trade of child abuse and pornography. Far from being disbanded, the branch should be strengthened and supported as a major plank of law enforcement in the battle against paedophiles and all forms of explicit, degrading and violent pornography.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister says, but I shall only be satisfied with a guarantee that the branch will not be broken up. The icing on the cake would be the Minister's telling the House that he would increase the branch's resources in terms of money, manpower and equipment. I invite him to do so.

10.35 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office (Mr. Charles Wardle) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) on securing the debate. As she said, the future of the Metropolitan police obscene publications branch has recently been the subject of much comment, and has given rise to some anxiety--the sort of anxiety that she has expressed so eloquently and articulately. I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify the position, and to put it on the record.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's sentiments about the importance of the fight against obscene publications, child pornography and paedophilia. The fact that so many right hon. and hon. Members are present for the debate is also eloquent testimony to the concern felt by the House. I urge my hon. Friends, however, to accept that, while it is, of course, absolutely right to emphasise the importance of

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the fight against child pornography, it would be wrong to speculate about what will happen in a review that is part and parcel of the operational responsibility of the Metropolitan police Commissioner. Of course the Commissioner will pay careful attention to the remarks that have been made this evening, and to remarks made by a number of right hon. and hon. Members about the importance of the fight against child pornography ; I assure the House that, in that regard, his view does not differ from theirs in any way. But--as I shall explain shortly--it is his responsibility to decide how to deploy his resources to achieve every possible advance in the fight against child pornography as effectively as possible.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. In fact, it was not my design to resort to a discussion of that Bill to bolster what I consider to be manifestly obvious--unanimity on the need to fight this vile offence. As my hon. Friend mentioned the Bill, however, I shall refer to it briefly.

It is precisely because the Government take so seriously the threat posed by the worst kinds of obscene material that we have included important measures against pornography in the Criminal Justice and Public order Bill. We think it vital for the law to keep pace with advances in modern technology such as computer pornography, especially computerised child pornography.

The Bill extends the law to cover those who transmit obscene material between computers, or manufacture or store child pornography on them. It also makes obscenity offences arrestable, and will give the police increased powers to obtain evidence against pornographers. It provides a possible prison sentence for those found in possession of child pornography, and brings the penalties for obscenity offences in Scotland into line with those in England and Wales.

Following recent Government amendments in another place, the Bill also increases penalties for those who supply videos to under-age children or supply unclassified videos, and lays down statutory principles that the British Board of Film Classification must take into account when classifying videos.

In the time available to me, I should like to reassure my hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members that the Commissioner is seeking to strengthen, not weaken, the fight against pornography and paedophilia. That is what I sought to make clear in my reply of 19 May to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who is in his place this evening, when I said : "There is no question of any relaxation in the fight by the Metropolitan police against pornography. The opposite is the case."--[ Official Report , 19 May 1994 ; Vol. 243, c. 941.]

I repeat that reassurance so that any remaining fears can be allayed.

The Metropolitan police are not reducing their efforts against those deeply unpleasant crimes. Rather, it is trying to improve its performance in dealing with them. The Government will not countenance proposals that would hinder the fight against pornography and paedophilia--and the Commissioner is not looking to make any. The Commissioner well recognises the evils of pornography and associated paedophilia. He and his senior colleagues have repeatedly and unambiguously made it clear that the force is committed to tackling those problems with resources, energy and determination.

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The challenge for the Metropolitan police is to build on its successes and do even better.

Mrs. Ann Winterton : Will my hon. Friend give way ?

Mr. Wardle : I should first like to make some progress ; then of course I shall give way to my hon. Friend.

Like all well run organisations, the Metropolitan police has recognised that, to react effectively to changing times, it needs to review its structure and organisation. That is a matter for the operational judgment of the chief officer, the Commissioner.

Mrs. Winterton : The Minister has described how successful this country has been in tracking down and bringing pornographers to book. Cannot he accept the simple principle behind this debate : "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" ? If the structure has been successful in the past, is successful now, has been proactive and is recognised, both nationally and internationally, as successful, why cannot the Commissioner simply say, "I am reviewing certain departments, but the obscene publications branch has a track record second to none, and I have no intentions of altering its structure ; in fact, I intend to strengthen it with further resources" ?

Mr. Wardle : I understand--as I understood when she spoke initially- -and share my hon. Friend's sense of commitment in the fight against child pornography and the like. The principle "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is perfectly sensible as far as it goes, but in any well run organisation it makes sense to review from time to time in order to preserve the strengths and see whether any facets of the organisation could be improved.

It does not mean that everything that is good must be thrown out of the window. There is not an organisation in the world that would not benefit from an occasional review to identify and build on the strengths and see what other strengths can be developed.

I hope that my hon. Friend will now allow me, in the short time available, to continue to develop the theme that I began. The Commissioner's aim is to improve policing performance and quality of service and to deliver a more effective use of resources, sharper accountability and improved communication and

decision-making. That is his responsibility as the chief officer of the Metropolitan police. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that those are important and desirable aims.

We do him a disservice to assume, for reasons that are not entirely clear, that he would want to undo any of the strengths of the Metropolitan police, particularly in that area. It must be good management sense periodically to review an organisation's structure and see whether there are more effective ways of doing any aspect of the job.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary made clear, the Government entirely support the Commissioner's review--and it is the Commissioner's review. We want all chief officers to cut unnecessary administration and to put the maximum possible effort into front-line policing and attacks on that type of vile crime. No one can afford to be complacent about existing structures and organisational methods if they are to keep fit for the fight against crime, and if they are not to allow their organisations to ossify. The police need to ensure that they are organised as effectively as possible to meet new challenges in the most effective way. As my hon. Friend

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told the House, we are up against some determined and extremely unpleasant criminals in that field. That is why it is so important that the Commissioner should have our support in his review, and that is what it is all about.

It is a pity, therefore, that the Commissioner's aims and methods have been misunderstood in relation to some of the specialist headquarters units, and, unfortunately, recent reports in the media have failed to reflect the policy accurately. I know that the Commissioner has written to some of the newspapers concerned, but, in the way of such things, reassuring letters do not catch headlines, and the public's anxiety has not yet been allayed completely. Perhaps it is understandable that my hon. Friend has expressed herself so forcefully this evening.

I make it absolutely clear that restructuring is not about what the Metropolitan police does. That is a matter for the annual policing plan, as I think my hon. Friend suggested, and that is approved each year by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. Restructuring is about how the Metropolitan police organises itself to do what it does. That is a matter for the Commissioner, although, of course, he discusses his proposals with my right hon. and learned Friend.

I shall make three general points. First, the obscene publications branch has not been singled out. All headquarters units are included in the review, and I understand from the Commissioner that the work of the branch is expected to receive at least as much, and perhaps even more, attention in the new arrangements. There is no intention to cut resources or to pull out any functions. That is the view of the man in charge--the Commissioner. I believe that my hon. Friend recently had discussions with the Commissioner about that important subject.

Mrs. Winterton indicated dissent .

Mr. Wardle : Secondly, the review is in its very early stages. The Commissioner and his senior management team are not yet considering any proposal about the future of the branch, still less a decision. It is wrong, and I think not entirely constructive, to suggest otherwise. I understand the anxiety, but we must give the Commissioner a chance. Indeed, I understand that final decisions about reorganisation are not expected until April next year. All that has been done is to include the obscene publications branch in--or rather, not exclude it from--the restructuring review.

Thirdly, the branch's inclusion in the review is not to be taken as implying any criticism of its present management or operations. My hon. Friend has paid tribute to the successes of the branch. She is right to do so. The officers in the branch do a difficult job very well indeed, and have earned a great deal of respect on both sides of the House.

My hon. Friend spoke about a national role for the Metropolitan police in that regard, and I should like to make a few comments. First, the Metropolitan police does not have an established or continuing national responsibility for operations involving computer pornography. I say that for clarification. It has, however, played an important role in training officers from all forces throughout the country in computer-related crime and the recovery of evidence, but other forces, such as those in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, have their own vice squads with officers and equipment to combat that form of pornography.

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Secondly, investigation of child pornography and paedophile rings is carried out throughout the country by different forces. Although the Metropolitan police does not have a national role as such, it has long been accepted that it has developed an expertise in that field and, in those circumstances, members of other forces turn to the Met and one another for advice and assistance. That is good practice, and I am sure that it will continue.

In conclusion, although it is too early to speculate about the outcome of the Commissioner's review, I think that it is a logical and correct step to consider possible areas of overlap and possible opportunities for strengthening the organisation, which is precisely what is being undertaken.

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The question that confronts the Commissioner is simple : can we, by using our resources differently, do an even better job in fighting that type of crime ? That is the question that the Commissioner is addressing, and I hope, after what I have said, that my hon. Friend and right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber this evening will agree that it is an entirely appropriate exercise for him to undertake. I believe that this is a question that all forces must deal with if they are to wage a successful war against crime. Every support and assistance should be given to help to find a valuable and durable answer.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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