Some time ago, a petition was started on the Prime Minister’s petition site:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to steadfastly proceed with plans announced in the Queen’s Speech to make possession of extreme pornography illegal and to include a much wider range of pornographic imagery, such as R18 material, within the scope of the Criminal Justice Bill.

In 1972 the late Lord Denning, former Master of the Rolls, said that the law against pornography had misfired: He said: “Much that is obscene has escaped the reach of the law”. The pornography industry has exploited to the full a law that is inherently flawed and has failed to fulfil the intention of Parliament in the 1959 Act to strengthen the criminal law. It has had the opposite effect.

4,089 people signed the petition and the Government has now responded as follows:

Whilst welcoming this announcement, your petition also expresses concern that the proposals outlined by the Government should cover a wider range of pornographic imagery. The Government certainly understands that pornographic material is offensive to many people and it may be helpful to set out these issues in the broader context of the Government’s approach to regulation of adult material in general.

Government policy is that controls on published material should aim to strike a balance between freedom of expression and protection of the public, and should be proportionate to the potential harm that might be caused. At the extreme, there is material which we believe should not be published at all, which is be covered by the criminal law. The Government considers that criminal sanctions should be reserved for material featuring indecent photographs of children, which are covered by the Protection of Children Act 1978, and for material which is considered by the courts to be likely to cause harm in that it is likely to “deprave and corrupt” persons “likely to see, hear or read it”, which is covered by the Obscene Publications Act 1959 (OPA).

In the consultation on the possession of extreme pornographic material, the Government put forward a case for making a limited category of extreme pornographic material, which it would already be illegal to publish or distribute in this country under the OPA, illegal to possess. We believe this is necessary to combat the circumvention of existing controls which has been made possible by the development of new technologies. We are determined to continue to act against publishers where we can but we also require the individual to take greater responsibility with regard to this material. The aim is not to bring additional material within the scope of the law.

The general test of obscenity is flexible, allowing the courts to reflect society’s attitudes towards pornographic and other material. The OPA applies equally to material published over the internet, though the overwhelming majority of potentially obscene material published on the internet originates abroad, in countries which do not share our approach to this material and is therefore outside our jurisdiction. This development has caused us to take action to plug this gap as I have mentioned above.

There have been successful prosecutions for internet related offences under the OPA and there were 30 prosecutions under the Act in 2004 (the last year for which figures are available). We continue to believe that the OPA is a flexible tool with which to tackle a wider range of obscene material according to the standards of the day. As set out in the response to the consultation, we intend to increase the maximum penalty for offences under the Act from three years to five years imprisonment.

With regard to your views about extending the proposals to more mainstream material, banning possession of any material is a serious step. We consulted widely on our proposals last year and acknowledge that there will always be debate about where the line should be drawn.

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