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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn-- [Mr. Wood.]

10.47 pm

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) : I have sought this debate on behalf of my constituents who live in what should be a pleasant residential area, but which for decades has been blighted and unjustifiably stigmatised as a result of the nuisance and disturbance associated with street prostitution and, latterly, window prostitution. The area is on the edge of my constituency and also includes part of the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), who have been notified about the debate.

My concerns are not specifically directed against the concept of sex for sale, however distasteful that concept may appear. It could be argued that prostitutes provide a valuable service. Over the past couple of years, I have taken every opportunity to talk with my constituents, with residents in so-called red light districts in other parts of the country, with prostitutes working on the streets from windows and massage parlours, as well as with the police and other agencies--health workers, academics and so on.

I have come to the conclusion that we must accept that prostitution is, unfortunately, here to stay. Perhaps we would therefore do best to accept that the law should have no role to play in what is, in effect, a commercial transaction between service provider and customer. The law does, however, have a role to play in controlling the harmful social and environmental consequences of prostitution, which is what I want to discuss today.

Last summer, a resident wrote an open letter to me, which was published in the local community magazine. He said :

"I know that I'm living in what others call a Red Light district. I have no moral problems with this having spent 3 years in Amsterdam, but it's the disturbances it brings to my children's way of life and my own which concern me.

Until two weeks ago when police launched a special initiative to control the volume of traffic in the area I was forced to sleep downstairs to protect my children from men knocking on my front door and shouting abuse at the windows. And that's sometimes as early as 7 o'clock on Sunday mornings. You see we are forced to keep the same hours as the prostitutes. Rest comes at about 3 am.

Living on this road, its assumed we're another 'working house' and we're on view to the sightseers and kerb crawlers as much as the 'women in the windows'.My kids have been forced to get used to people prying into our windows, looking through the gaps in the curtains, or putting faces and hands through the letterbox. Mistaken identities are an everyday hazard if you live here. People in the streets think I'm a pimp and my daughter has been propositioned--and she's only 10. My kids are streetwise--they have to be to survive in this area. They pass drug dealers, prostitutes, and pimps every day they walk to school. Kids can't play normally here . . . I'm not against the individual women--it's their choice of living, but as a resident I'm fed up with the disturbance it causes. You're denied a social life. If I bring a girlfriend to my house, people assume she's a prostitute or she feels uncomfortable with a vice patrol van outside." Another resident, Mr. Khan, wrote to me :

"They have spoiled our livelihood. We have worked hard to buy our houses. At that time, the situation was not as bad as it is now. Residents are being intimidated, harassed and abused. The police have done what they can, but their hands are tied."

Significantly, he adds :

"We do not just want to clean up our streets but also ask politicians to find a permanent solution for the prostitutes."

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An officer of one of the local residents associations has told me that people are desperate to find a solution. Police powers and effectiveness are limited by the terms of current legislation. He asks us to explore ways in which to provide more effective legislation to rid not only that area but all residential areas of the problems of street prostitution.

There is no doubt that from a resident's perspective prostitution creates a poor environmental image and attracts a high volume of traffic, not just from kerb-crawling clients, but from sightseers. There is often noise into the early hours of the morning and litter of the ordinary type plus used condoms and tissues. An atmosphere of fear is created for female residents and children. There is also no doubt that the current legal framework is ineffective in dealing with residents' concerns. My constituents recognise that, but the Government do not.

In January 1993, I tabled a parliamentary question asking the Home Secretary what plans he had to review the laws on prostitution. The then Home Office Minister responded in the following terms : "We consider that the criminal law is well placed to deal with the nuisance caused by prostitution and have no present plans to review the law in this area."-- [ Official Report , 11 January 1993 ; Vol. 216, c. 597 .]

And they have not.

Given the continuing nuisance to residents that I have just described, does not that response show how out of touch the Government are with the realities of life ? Yes, there are laws against prostitutes soliciting and against kerb crawling, but those are effective only when the police mount high-profile clamp-downs which they cannot keep up for long because of the high cost in police resources. I am advised that the West Midlands police spend about £500,000 policing this area in Balsall Heath. In 1993, 724 women were arrested for prostitution, 147 were cautioned, there were 127 summonses for kerb crawling and 528 letters were sent to men cruising in their cars. Still the nuisance remains.

The only aspect of the law that the Government show any inclination to reform is the persistence requirement in section 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 1985. That might make it slightly easier to nail a kerb crawler but, as the figures show, that is being done anyway with little impact on the problem. In fact, the need to show persistence can be avoided by the use of the nuisance provision in section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act, following from the case of Director of Public Prosecutions v. Paul in 1989. Section 115 of the Police and Magistrates Courts Act 1980 can be used against cruising kerb crawling, and there are also provisions in section 5 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act which can be used against nuisance. A review by Inspector Robert Golding of Hampshire

constabulary--which covers Southampton--shows that an array of laws can be used against kerb crawlers and prostitution, but only if the police are present on a more or less permanent basis.

Residents know that the current laws of themselves do not work. That is why, in Balsall Heath, they have taken their own action to highlight the problems. For the past four weeks, groups of residents have positioned themselves on every street corner where prostitutes used to ply their trade. This involved hundreds of local people who were there from mid- morning until the early hours. They are still

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there when I pass through on my way home from this place in the early hours of Friday morning and I have stopped to talk to them on those and other occasions.

They say to me, "Why should we have to do this to make our streets pleasant to live in ? What are the politicians and the Government going to do to find a permanent solution ?" They are realistic enough to realise that, just like the police, they cannot keep that level of activity up for ever-- and even if they could, the problem would only move to other areas.

While they would like to believe that arrests and prosecutions will solve the problem, they know from experience that the current system of arresting prostitutes, fining them and turning them back on to the streets to pay off their fines only perpetuates the problem. There is even a recognition that current policing practices exacerbates potential sexually transmitted diseases and health risks. The Balsall Heath residents' action group says that prostitution cannot be eradicated, but that it can be controlled and managed so as to reduce medical problems and impose as little strain as possible on local people. They understand that there is a strong economic base to prostitution. Few women choose it as a profession but, having entered, the incentive is strong to remain in it. They have called for the establishment of "zones of tolerance" where prostitution is legal. Their call was echoed by the whole community and by politicians of all political parties at a public meeting tonight.

I do not say that that is necessarily the whole answer, but it is one idea which should perhaps be tried. One thing is for sure--it would require a change in the law. Is it not now time for a radical review of the legislation to provide a legal framework which will allow prostitutes to advertise their services and meet clients in a manner which does not cause nuisance or offence, reduces the exploitation of women by those who wish to live off their earnings and encourages responsible behaviour in the prevention of sexually transmitted disease ?

Time and again it has been shown that attempts to bring criminal law enforcement into sexual disease control has not been at all effective. An editorial in an issue of the British Medical Journal last November said that the decriminalisation of prostitution would enable prostitutes to organise and exercise more control over clients, and would promote the provision of health care. That is the view of health workers operating in Balsall Heath and other areas. I therefore return to the point that I made at the beginning of my speech. We should perhaps view prostitution merely as a service which should be tolerated, provided that it does not cause nuisance. The logical action would then be to remove the laws which prevent prostitutes from advertising their services and which make it illegal for them to work discreetly in small groups for their own safety and security. That is what prostitutes themselves want, and that is what a growing number, people--including many police officers, and even a representative from the Mothers' Union who participated in a radio debate with me this morning--see as a solution. Is it not time the Government caught up with public opinion and really got to grips with tackling the problem ?

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10.59 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean) : I am grateful to have the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones), because she has raised an interesting subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) has followed the debate closely. He informed me of the difficulties and concerns that he has in his constituency, especially in the Chapeltown district of Leeds.

I shall begin by explaining the function and powers of the criminal law, in relation to prostitution. Then I shall talk a little of the role of the police, both generally and in the hon. Member's constituency.

Under our law, prostitution is not an illegal activity. A woman--or even a man--may sell sexual services, as long as the activities are not unlawful. The Government nevertheless recognise that prostitution can be the origin of a very serious nuisance to members of the public. It also often involves the exploitation of vulnerable members of the community, so a wide range of sanctions are available to deal with the criminal activities that tend to accompany prostitution. The Government believe that the law is already adequate to deal with the vast majority of criminal activity.

The criminal law has two main aims : first, to prevent the serious nuisance to the public caused when prostitutes ply their trade in the streets ; and, secondly, to prevent and to penalise those who encourage, control or exploit the prostitution of others. So far as nuisance in the street is concerned, the Street Offences Act 1959 makes it an offence for a woman to loiter or solicit in a street, or other public place, for the purposes of prostitution. That is punishable by a maximum fine of £500 for a first offence, and of £1,000 for subsequent offences. The 1959 Act also confers on a constable the power to arrest, without warrant, anyone he finds in a street or public place and suspects, with reasonable cause, of committing such an offence.

The Sexual Offences Act 1985 provides other important provisions to tackle street prostitution. The Act made it an offence persistently to solicit a woman for prostitution in a public place, and it made kerb crawling an offence. Offences under the Act are punishable by a maximum fine of £1,000. That was an example of the Government keeping in touch with public opinion and concern, and moving to change the law in 1985 to deal with that new manifestation of a public nuisance.

Although the hon. Member is especially concerned with the nuisance caused by prostitution, the criminal law has another aim in that area--to deal with those who seek to encourage or exploit prostitution. That is the heart of the matter and where the real wickedness lies, so under the Sexual Offences Act 1956, it is an offence punishable by a maximum of seven years' imprisonment to live off the earnings of another person's prostitution, or to control a prostitute. It is also an offence punishable by two years' imprisonment to procure a woman with threats, or to encourage or cause a girl under 16 to be a prostitute. A number of offences relating to brothel keeping carry a maximum of six months' imprisonment.

I have set out the powers available under the criminal law. It is the Government's job to ensure that those powers are sufficient to enable the prosecuting authorities to deal effectively with the problem.

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Dr. Lynne Jones : Is it not a fact that, in 1991, 79 convictions were brought against people living on the earnings of prostitution ? There were similarly very few prosecutions for the other offences that the Minister mentioned, when compared with the number of prosecutions of prostitutes. The laws clearly exist, but they are not having an effect and dealing with the problem.

Mr. Maclean : I disagree. The hon. Lady cites the number of prosecutions, but she did not cite the penalties applicable in each case. It stands to reason that there are fewer prosecutions against those controlling prostitutes, as there are fewer people at that end of the trade than there are plying the streets. One pimp could control quite a few prostitutes. It is inevitable that there will be more prosecutions against those who are out creating the nuisance on the streets.

Nevertheless, I support police action against those people who are living off immoral earnings, or are controlling and keeping prostitutes, because that is often where the real evil lies, and where one sees appalling violence and exploitation. If those people are legitimately harassed by the police and rounded up and prosecuted, we are getting a good service that serves, in any case, to diminish the amount of prostitution.

The police resources dedicated to preventing and prosecuting those people involved in prostitution are a matter for each individual chief constable. It is not a matter of the Government dictating priorities to chief constables around the country on the level of resources that they should allocate to deal with prostitution in their area. Each chief constable must decide on his force's operational priorities and objectives and, of course, he needs to take local needs into account.

The commitment of the West Midlands police to enforcing the law against prostitution cannot be doubted, and it can be seen clearly from the number of persons arrested and charged with offences. In 1993, about 1,900 people were prosecuted for prostitution and a further 193 people were prosecuted for kerb crawling.

Police action is directed towards reducing the number of prostitutes and kerb crawlers by increasing police patrols in the worst affected areas. That tactic is having some success in Balsall Heath, where previously a survey had revealed that on average 2,000 vehicles a day were being driven by kerb crawlers into a small cul de sac. Another campaign of the same sort has been launched in the Edgbaston area following consultation between the police and local residents.

Elsewhere in the country, the police are having most success where they work in close partnership with local authorities and other agencies to "design out" crime. In the King's Cross area of London, for example, local authorities follow up police action with environmental changes, such as improvements in street lighting and traffic management, to make the area unattractive to prostitutes and their clients. One-way streets and road closures have made it difficult for prospective kerb crawlers to operate. That has created an increased sense of safety and pride in the community.

It is, of course, not unusual in a case where the police, for whatever reason, have not dealt with a matter to the satisfaction of the parties concerned, to hear calls for changes in the law. We have had calls to toughen up the laws on prostitution and to increase the powers of courts and police ; however, we have also had calls to liberalise

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the law and to allow licensed brothels or toleration zones where prostitutes can operate away from residential areas without interference from the law. The police, however, have shown that it is possible to tackle the problems caused by prostitution in residential areas. It must be a determined, collaborative effort with the local community, but it can be done.

Toleration zones would mean that the criminal law would be disapplied in a particular area. We would pretend that the criminal law did not exist. We have no intention of legalising activities surrounding prostitution, either as a matter of general application or in specific geographical areas. The concept of toleration zones, where one turns a blind eye to breaches of the law, sets a dangerous precedent for the criminal law. Although it could possibly and theoretically deal with the nuisance problem, it would not deal with the evil aspect of prostitution : vicious pimps controlling prostitutes ; in fact, it would make that aspect of the problem much worse.

If we accepted toleration zones, we would give a free licence to all those people who live off immoral earnings and control and abuse prostitutes to continue their evil work not only unabated but with Government encouragement. That is not right.

As for kerb crawling, the Government have made it clear that we consider that the need to prove persistence, nuisance or annoyance on the part of a kerb crawler is a difficult and unnecessary barrier to the effective operation of the powers. That requirement was originally incorporated into the legislation because Parliament was concerned that innocent people would otherwise be prosecuted. We now consider that those fears were excessive, and that it would be worth while tightening up the law by removing the need to prove persistence.

A private Member's Bill to achieve just that was introduced, with full Government support, in 1990. Unfortunately, a small group of Members of Parliament--notably the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone)-- deliberately prolonged the debate beyond the point where the measure could reach the statute book. We have since made a commitment to reintroduce the measure as soon as a suitable legislative vehicle can be found. If the hon. Lady is successful in the next ballot for private Members' Bills, I hope that she will introduce the measure, and that she will prevail on the hon. Member for Brent, East not to block it.

Dr. Lynne Jones : Does the Minister really think that that is an answer to the problem ? Police officers to whom I have spoken have told me that they are perfectly able to use the present array of laws to deal with kerb crawling, but that they have to be present all the time to implement them.

Mr. Maclean : The hon. Lady called for new Government action, but there is already adequate criminal law to deal with the problems of prostitution and we have proposed a small change that we believe would help to tackle kerb crawling. There is no magic panacea that the Government can adopt, thereby introducing new powers, making changes or turning a blind eye to the evils of controlling prostitutes as an experiment with toleration zones. I suggest that that would be a damaging experiment to try. Many vulnerable women would suffer abominably if the Government and police decided to turn a blind eye and to permit toleration zones.

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I suggest that the existing laws to deal with the problem are adequate, and it is for local police forces to enforce them according to priorities in local areas. The law works best where legal action is coupled with action by local authorities to design out aspects of the local environment that might encourage prostitution. We have seen some notable successes in the country ; there are some good examples that other local authorities should emulate. I commend that action to the hon. Lady, rather than dangerous experiments that have a simplistic appeal but have not been fully thought through. Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Eleven o'clock.

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