I move the amendment standing in my name: In page 4, lines 23 and 58, to delete the word "seven" and substitute therefor in each line the word "five."
Public Business. - Censorship of Publications Bill, 1928—Fourth and Fifth Stages.
On a point of order, I do not wish to stop discussion on this matter at all, but as a matter of general principle, if a particular thing like this has been decided in Committee, is it in order to propose to reverse that decision on the Report Stage? It is as a general matter of procedure that I am raising this. On the Committee Stage, there was a definite decision taken as to the number seven as against the number six. This amendment, if carried, would clearly reverse that decision. The question is, can a motion be taken which tends or has the effect of reversing a decision reached on the Committee Stage, on the Report Stage?
To reverse it?
Certainly. The House is always in a position to reverse a decision of a Committee. I think that the Deputy at the moment is thinking of the Standing Order, which says that an amendment offered in Committee and defeated in Committee cannot again be offered on Report.
Is that not the case in this particular matter?
An amendment to an amendment proposing six was proposed and carried.
It was the opposite, I think, that happened.
An amendment defeated in Committee could not be offered on Report.
In moving my amendment, I desire to say that it is not my wish or intention to impede the passage of this Bill. Nor do I wish particularly to stand for the incorporation of five members in this particular section. I would appeal to all parties to entertain my amendment in the most liberal fashion possible. Those vitally interested in the successful working of this Bill feared that this section, as now worded, might have very disastrous consequences upon the smooth and speedy operation of the measure. As the Bill now stands, if two members of the Censorship Board happen to be absent from a meeting, either through illness or some other cause, then the remaining seven members present must be unanimous before a decision prohibiting a book can be carried. Should three members of the Censorship Board be absent and six of the others constituting the Board be present, they can do nothing. I think all members will agree that would be a very regrettable condition of affairs. In my opinion, it would mean indefinitely holding up the prohibition of a book. Circumstances like that might easily arise. A couple of members of the Board might be absent through illness, or through causes arising from business, and the result would be that the Board could not function. It is not my intention to impress upon the House the necessity for accepting five or any number, but I suggest that as the section is framed prohibition could not work smoothly or efficiently.
I think some provision should be made to deal with contingencies of the kind that I have suggested might arise. I realise the difficulty of finding a set form of words to cover exactly what is in my mind. It is important when the Censorship Board begins to operate that there should be no impediment to its efficient functioning. I move this amendment, not because I stand strongly for a prohibition of books, and not because I have any objecttion to have a book prohibited by as large a majority of the Censorship Board as possible, but because I honestly believe the point with which it deals is a vital defect in the Bill. If by some general agreement of the House a remedy could be found to deal with the contingencies to which I have referred, I would be very willing to accept anything in the nature of a compromise. If the Minister could find some remedy for this serious defect in the Bill I think it would be a good thing for all parties concerned.
I have a good deal of sympathy with Deputy Byrne in this matter. When we brought forward our amendment, which was carried, for having a Board of nine instead of five, we had in mind that the number requisite to prohibit a book should be six, but to my astonishment I found the Government, I do not know why, for they had been in favour of having a book stopped by only four, suddenly jumped from that number to seven. I would imagine that they would have been consistent in the matter, and would have stood for the smallest number, and, having regard to the fact that the total number of the Board would be nine, they would have chosen six as the next best thing to four. Instead of that, in order to take it out of the Opposition, they went one better, and they took an attitude which was completely inconsistent with their original attitude. I suggest as a compromise between Deputy Byrne's proposal and the attitude of the Government that our original proposal would be a reasonable compromise, and that the number should be six out of nine. The weighty argument has been put forward by Deputy Byrne that you might have absentees, or you might have cranks on the Board. On the whole, it might be more reasonable to limit the number to six rather than to make it seven. I suggest that we should compromise and come to an agreement on this matter.
The observations I desire to make are rather in the nature of queries. I want to know has Deputy Byrne visualised how this Censorship Board will work, because I do not think that casual absence would interfere with the efficiency of that Board as would be the case, say, in the working of the Film Censorship Board where a member must be present and see the film. I imagine members of this Board will receive copies of the books and periodicals in question and consider them at leisure. It would be impossible, I think, really to attempt to consider and form an opinion of, say, a book on the borderline at a table where everybody is talking, debating and squabbling as to whether this line is right, whether that chapter is right, and what do you think of something else. You would need to consider it in the quietude of your study, and I think that at the actual meetings of the Board the work will simply be to ratify decisions already arrived at. Therefore, I do not think that the efficiency of the Board would be interfered with to any prejudicial extent by the absence of members from the causes to which Deputy Byrne has referred. If a quorum did not turn up on a particular date I think it would be quite easy to arrange to have a meeting a couple of days later. The decisions arrived at by the Board will be rather short and to the point.
You will notice that it has to be signed by seven.
I think the principle of the Bill, to which we assented on Second Reading, was that there should be substantial agreement amongst the members of the Board before any newspaper was prohibited. The Bill, as it passed the Second Reading, required the consent of four-fifths of the members of the Board. It provided that the absence of one out of the five would not mean the prohibition of any book, but that the absence of two would. In other words, the Board have to be practically unanimous. Deputy Byrne suggests that we should have a bare majority, that four members should not be prohibited from giving a decision, and that a majority of one would decide. I think that that is almost a departure from the principle of the Bill, and an unnecessary departure. Deputy Little's suggestion of two-thirds of the Board is certainly an improvement on Deputy Byrne's, but I think it is also a departure from the principle of the Bill. Two-thirds is substantially less than four-fifths, and I do not know why, having agreed to the principle on Second Reading, we should now depart from it. I think that Deputy Byrne is visualising imaginary dangers. I hope that the Minister will not appoint on the Board gentlemen who are so busy that they can attend only at irregular intervals, and I hope he does not intend to appoint habitual invalids. Of course, there might be occasions, such as that of a month ago, when all the members of such a Board might have been laid up; you really cannot legislate against an influenza epidemic. I think that Deputy Byrne's point is an imaginary one. I think he partly foresaw a dissenting minority of the Board who would try to hold up the proceedings by absenting themselves.
That is quite possible.
If so I think the Deputy is making a very severe imputation on the people whom the Minister will appoint—that men will deliberately undertake membership of a Board of this character with the intention of frustrating and nullifying its proceedings. Is the Minister likely to appoint men of that character? It seems to me to be extremely unlikely. I think that Deputy Byrne's whole attitude is tinged in this way by suspicion, a suspicion generated—I do not want to use an offensive word; I was going to say ignorance—by a lack of appreciation of the spirit in which responsible people approach a question of this kind. I do not believe that that danger is a serious one, any more than I believe that people who would have to be absent through illness or prevented by business from being present would undertake the work of the Board. Of course, you will not get as good an attendance with nine as with five. Everybody knows that with a large committee it is very difficult to get people to attend, while with four or five, as in the case of a Private Bill, the attendance is generally regular. With big committees people are rather more casual, and that, I am afraid, may be the result of the acceptance of the amendment to have nine members on the Board. That being so, I think the Government have reasonably not insisted on making it eight out of nine, but seven out of nine, and that is what I prefer. I would certainly prefer Deputy Little's proposition to Deputy Byrne's, because I think Deputy Byrne's is a violation of the whole principle approved of on Second Reading.
I think that in any case like that which Deputy Byrne is afraid of the Minister has retained powers in the Bill to remove from the Board people who are causing obstruction. I do not think Deputy Byrne need be afraid of obstruction. The very worst that could happen would be that a decision would be postponed from one meeting of the Board to the next— perhaps a month. But the real point is this, I think, that the Government, in proposing that four out of five should be required to agree about a book, were carrying out the obvious wishes of the Committee in accordance with the general tone of the Report of the Committee. What the Committee thought, and what I think the Government agreed with them in thinking, was that the important thing in prohibiting a book was that it should be felt that there was a strong body of public feeling behind such a prohibition. Now, if the prohibition is made to rest on the decision of a mere majority, or even on Deputy Little's suggestion of two-thirds, I do not think it will carry the same weight as if there is evidence that there is such a strong body of feeling against a book as would be shown by the fact that seven out of nine agreed that it should not be in circulation. I think that Deputies generally felt that there was weight in that kind of argument when they decided on the Committee Stage that they would substitute seven for six, and I strongly hope that the House will stick to that decision. I believe that it would make a very great difference to the smooth working of the Bill to retain the seven, and I do not believe it will have the very smallest effect in preventing the Board from deciding to prohibit books which ought to be prohibited. Again, I stress the point that seven out of nine is a smaller fraction than four out of five.
I would be willing, if Deputy Little's amendment would meet with the approval of the House, to accept it. I am sure Deputy Thrift would agree that even a two-thirds majority would be a sufficiently strong prohibition.
I do not know whether I should go into Deputy Little's rather naive arithmetic. On the same principle we might argue for a Board of twenty-one, and we ought to be satisfied with a decision of six; in fact, that the smaller you make it the better. I do not know that Deputy Little was quite serious, and I gather from his own Party that his argument was not quite conclusive. I think we will admit that there has been pretty substantial agreement by all parties on the Bill. That was evidenced on Second Reading. Undoubtedly it was recognised that the Bill constituted an interference with liberty—a perfectly justifiable and necessary interference in the circumstances. That is the reason why the Bill was brought forward and why it received support from every part of the House. As I listened to the Second Reading debate, I thought there was general agreement that what should be prohibited were books that were obviously offensive—pornographic in their purpose. It was felt that if you could be sure in the original Board of five, that you could get five normal men, always normally functioning, a case could be made for unanimity in those circumstances. It was felt after all that, a choice having to be made, a person with rather cranky views, at least cranky views in some cases, at all events, might be present, and therefore it was felt it was not wise and not proper to press for or suggest that there should be unanimity. Personally I believe that had the number remained at five, the Bill would be more effective in functioning. That is a matter, however, that has already been discussed, and a definite view has been expressed by the House—namely, by increasing the five to nine. But I think, having increased it to nine, it is not proper to consider, not the normal functioning of the Board when the various members would be present, but abnormal cases in which there might be absences owing to illness or for other reasons. At the very worst it has been pointed out that that might mean postponement.
The Committee did agree to have seven out of nine, and it was felt that that would give the general sense of the community—that if you had a verdict of that kind, that is, on a book which was condemned by seven normal people out of nine, that would present the normal view of the community that such a book was pornographic and should not circulate, that its circulation would do damage, and that it was the kind of book that this Bill was meant to deal with. The Committee came to a conclusion which, I think, is in general accord with the main purpose of the Bill, namely, that seven out of nine would be required when, so to speak, a book was put into the dock and found guilty. There have not really been any serious reasons alleged, I suggest, why the House should now disagree with the view expressed in Committee. As I said, all sides of the House were pretty definite when the Bill was getting a Second Reading as to its purpose. We felt that would be secured in the first instance by four signatures out of five. It could not be secured equally well if the fraction was smaller than seven out of nine.