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12.30 pm

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): I shall explain briefly why I asked for this debate. Like many large cities, Birmingham has areas where street prostitution and kerb crawling occur. Two such areas, one off Pershore road and near Balsall Heath and one off Hagley road in the Rotten park area, are mainly in my constituency. Prostitution takes place in many different establishments, such as so-called massage parlours, saunas, brothels, hotels, and sometimes in private dwellings. It has been with us for centuries and it will never be completely eradicated.

I believe that prostitution is ultimately exploitative and can—and often does— involve the very young and vulnerable. However, for the purposes of today's debate, I shall concentrate on street prostitution in residential areas. Why is it a special problem that deserves the attention of the Chamber? I shall quote a resident who came to one of my advice surgeries. She said:

To be frank, I had little to say to my constituent other than that I agreed with her. She was almost kind about the problem in not mentioning a matter that she could have legitimately raised—that street prostitution is associated invariably with drug abuse. When street prostitution takes place in residential areas, there are inevitably drug dealers. Street prostitution is often a means by which people finance their drug habit. Associated with such a public nuisance is increased criminality closely connected with drug abuse.

Such problems are not new. In the past 10 years, the problem has sometimes been dealt with better than at other times in Birmingham. Sometimes we have seen sudden surges of activity. The argument arises about whether prostitution is a matter of displacement—about whether the minute it is dealt with in one part of the city, it moves to another part. Last year, Birmingham city council set up a panel composed of councillors and community representatives, including the police. I pay tribute to its work. The panel considered a variety of factors and it will report to the full council in due course. It considered environmental aspects such as street lighting, road configuration and litter collection. I visited some areas where different street lighting had been installed. It no longer provided the anonymity of darkness and began to reduce the problem. Similarly, the blocking of some roads prevented rat runs for kerb crawlers.

Such changes can, however, cause inconvenience to ambulance drivers, for example, who have difficulty in reaching certain places quickly. The panel considered housing and inter-agency arrangements to deal with information exchange. A big problem is tenancy agreement violations and the use of professional witnesses. However, some progress is being made in that area. The panel also considered children and young

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people. It agreed to work with Barnardos and the police to identify and target vulnerable young men and women. The Barnardos Girlspace project, which was established in late 1998, has been successful, and I hope that the council can find money to extend it.

An often overlooked aspect is public health. In Birmingham, the Safe project encourages street prostitutes to ask for health advice and distributes free condoms. It is an extremely valuable project in terms of public health. However, the anger and resentment generated among local residents is easy to underestimate. They feel that people handing out free condoms makes their residential area an attraction. However, in relation to Birmingham's HIV infection rate, it seems to have been successful. There is no one answer to the problem. It involves living with the reality of something that we would all rather did not happen and dealing with it safely and acceptably.

The panel considered possible legislative changes. Since entering the House, I have campaigned for kerb crawling to be an arrestable offence. It currently results only in a summons. I am extremely pleased that the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 made the necessary changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, a point to which I shall return.

Consideration was given to extending provisions for naming and shaming. The panel took evidence from the West Yorkshire police kerb crawlers rehabilitation programme, which I should like extended. The programme has been disbanded as insufficient referrals were made, but the principle behind it was that a kerb crawler stopped by the police was given a simple option. He could either appear before magistrates and possibly face a fine, or he could attend a day's rehabilitation programme and face up to the consequences of his actions, which included meeting local residents, who would ask, "What do you think it feels like, living here with people like you crawling along kerbs and stopping women?" Those men also had to meet prostitutes who had stopped working on the streets and face up to the unpleasant reality that most street prostitution is not an adult's choice of life style. It is not a question of an adult making the choice, saying, "I wish to earn my living by selling my body." Prostitution usually involves young, vulnerable people caught in dependent relationships or drug abuse, and is sometimes simply a form of child abuse. Initially, the programme seemed successful, but insufficient referrals were made. I hope that we shall consider it more closely. Ultimately, only if we stop kerb crawlers will we stop the associated problems.

Although there are many aspects of the report that I welcome and on which we need to build, one aspect caused me great concern. It seemed to suggest that, should the law on soliciting be changed, a multi-agency panel in Birmingham should actively consider a safety zone, or zone of tolerance, in a non-residential area, where the practice would cause the least alarm, nuisance and distress to residents, although the report was mindful of the physical safety of the female prostitutes who work within it. That sounds tempting as a solution to the problem, but I and agencies such as the police do not believe that it is. Where would the wonderful zone of tolerance be? I challenge any councillor to go to a Birmingham ward meeting, look in ward members' eyes and say, "We have now decided that your back yard is

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the area in which we will tolerate it." We would have to move to areas with no residential element, which would mean industrial areas of the city. Part of what kerb crawlers look for is anonymity, which residential areas provide. They would therefore not go to those industrial areas; it would be blatantly obvious why they would do so.

In one project in my constituency, the car numbers of men reported kerb crawling were analysed. An amazing number of those cars were registered in women's names. The men did not want to use their company car for kerb crawling, so they used the family car, which was often registered in the wife's name. Anonymity is important to the kerb crawler. Zones of tolerance in industrial areas would not provide that anonymity. To put it in the crudest terms, parallel markets would evolve and street prostitution would increase in residential areas.

There is an argument that the zones would be safer because the police would be able to enforce the law more selectively in relation to drug abuse and pimps. I would not want to accept any system in which the law was enforced selectively in some well-established areas. That would put an unacceptable onus on the police.

The final point that is often cited is that the zones work in Europe, but I do not think that they do. First, they do not create the ideal situation that people like to claim. Secondly, people on the continent have very different attitudes to sex. Zones of tolerance on the continent are usually made in agreement with the prostitutes and the local authority, because the system of pimps does not exist there to the extent that it does here. The zones on the continent operate without the involvement of pimps, but that would not happen here, so there is no analogy between the two situations.

Will the Minister tell us about the Home Office's attitude to zones of tolerance? Are there plans to change the legislation? I was interested to hear that, last year, some £500,000 was made available to cities bidding for projects in relation to street prostitution. The bidding criteria specifically excluded plans for setting up zones of tolerance. In Birmingham, local elections will be held every year for the next three years, and the question will rear its head. It would be useful to have a Government statement on the matter.

What should be done as regards prostitution? I pay tribute to the work by the West Midlands police force in the past few years in tackling a difficult situation. The force has set up microbeat offices, so there is much closer association between individual officers and problem areas. After a slow start, the force has succeeded in proceeding with some 21 antisocial behaviour orders, 15 of them against prostitutes. So far, only one of them has been breached, which resulted in a custodial sentence. The police and local authorities, as well as housing associations, have recently issued eviction orders when drug dealing was taking place alongside suspected prostitution in private dwellings. The police continue to report kerb crawlers for summonses.

I welcome the Criminal Justice and Police Act, which makes kerb crawling an arrestable offence, but I understand that the commencement order has not yet been laid. Will the Minister tell the Chamber when the

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measure will be introduced and whether it could be brought forward more speedily? West Midlands police tell me that they would welcome it as soon as possible.

One group that is often overlooked is the local residents. In both the areas that I have mentioned, there is an active street watch. In one street watch, which is well established and goes back some seven or eight years, the dedication of the local residents is exemplary. The beginning was difficult: the project arose from the anger of local residents, so they were accused of being vigilantes. However, now they work with the local police. In the past month alone, some 50 letters have been sent to drivers as a result of reports from street watch. Although it is usually not a good idea to single out individuals, I want to put on the record a tribute to the efforts of Raja Amin. Over the years, he has been involved with the local street watch and he has continually given his time and effort, as have many of his helpers.

Finally, I ask the Minister whether he and the Home Office will give special consideration to applications for closed circuit television in locations where property crimes and drug offences are particularly connected with street prostitution, and whether further thought has been given to the idea that I raised some years ago—although for a variety of reasons I could not pursue it—of putting penalty points on driving licences for kerb crawling. It would be a good disincentive if kerb crawlers were to lose their licences when they had accumulated a certain number of penalty points, as is the case with speeding.

As I have said, street prostitution raises a number of moral and ethical issues. However, in this debate, I am particularly concerned with its public nuisance effect. Although it is tempting to say that the introduction of zones of tolerance is a way forward, I do not agree. I think that it is a misguided idea and would not work. Rather, local authorities, police and residents should continue to work together within a legislative framework that allows them to deal with the problem.

12.45 pm

The Minister for Prisons (Mr. Keith Bradley) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this important debate, and I welcome the opportunity to respond to many of the points that she has raised.

The Home Office is keenly aware of the nuisance associated with the activities of prostitutes and kerb crawlers—and, in particular, the considerable distress that is caused to local residents, which my hon. Friend has so graphically described. I want to add my words of tribute to local residents who participate in schemes such as the street watch scheme in Birmingham that she mentioned.

The power of arrest for kerb crawling that is contained in the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 will be of great benefit to the police in tackling the crime. It is an important and long-awaited reform, and I am delighted that it is now on the statute book. The measure will be implemented on 1 October 2001. We recognise that providing the police with an extra measure to tackle kerb crawling is a priority. When a new power of arrest is introduced, it is important that police forces are properly informed. It is customary to delay

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implementation of such provisions while guidance is produced, and we shall issue a circular to police forces that informs them of the change and gives them time to consider how best to use the power in their regions.

The stigma attached to kerb crawling is a powerful disincentive, and I hope that the threat of being arrested may deter some potential perpetrators from engaging in this destructive activity. For that reason, I do not consider that the introduction of fixed penalties for kerb crawling would be useful. If an offender does not face the prospect of appearing in court and the publicity that may result from that, he might not be dissuaded from such behaviour.

The Act also contains measures to tackle another form of nuisance associated with prostitution—prostitutes' cards in telephone kiosks. From 1 September 2001, it will be an offence to place advertisements relating to prostitution in public telephone kiosks. Such cards are an increasing nuisance in our cities, and they often carry explicit images. I know Birmingham well, as I was born there, and the measure will improve the quality of life for the residents of affected areas, whom my hon. Friend mentioned, and for visitors. At present, the problem is mainly confined to London and Brighton, but the new offence will cover all areas, so it will help to prevent the spread of this nuisance.

The Act also contains an order-making power to extend the measure, by affirmative resolution of the House, to other public structures. The power is available for use should the cards be placed in other structures, such as bus shelters. The nuisance and misery that street prostitution can cause to communities is evident from what we have heard in the debate. It is important that the police use the powers available to them, in consultation with residents, to tackle the problems. The allocation and deployment of officers, and the arrangements for the day-to-day policing of an area, are, obviously, the operational responsibility of the chief officer of the local force. He or she is responsible for investigating any acts of crime and disorder in the area and to enforce the legislation available.

My hon. Friend mentioned the policy development panel in Birmingham, and I reiterate her praise for it. Such multi-agency groups also have a role to play in considering local solutions to the problems faced by local communities.

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government do not think that zones of tolerance will assist in dealing with the problems that we are debating. The Association of Chief Police Officers is also opposed to zones of tolerance, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Kerb crawling and soliciting are criminal offences, and we have no plans to relax the law in that regard. It would also be extremely difficult for communities to agree on the location of zones of tolerance. It is important that difficult problems, such as those associated with prostitution, are given careful consideration and not simply shifted from one area to another. More importantly, we are concerned that any such scheme might encourage demand for the services of prostitutes and put children at risk of becoming involved in prostitution. One primary concern is to prevent the exploitation of children through prostitution. Children involved in prostitution are primary victims, and those who buy their sexual services are sex offenders. That

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position is the subject of the guidance document "Safeguarding Children Involved in Prostitution", which was published last year and has been widely welcomed by agencies involved in the protection of children.

We are also concerned about the growing trade in trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. By its nature, trafficking is organised and often part of a major international crime. It is important that measures that are taken to deal with the nuisance associated with prostitution do not create an environment in which trafficking can flourish. Trafficking treats people as commodities and targets the vulnerable. We are determined to tackle this crime and have been actively negotiating the final text of a European Union framework decision to combat trafficking in human beings. The report of the sex offences review also recommends a new offence of trafficking for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. We are now considering the responses to that recommendation.

Our other priority is to tackle the crime and disorder associated with prostitution. That is why we are funding 11 projects as part of the crime reduction programme to find out what works in combating the problems associated with prostitution. Such multi-agency projects involve measures to reduce the nuisance caused to residents, as well as longer-term strategies to assist those who want to exit prostitution to do so. Each project will be evaluated independently so that we can learn which strategies are effective and should be implemented elsewhere.

I regret that the bid from Birmingham did not meet our selection criteria. One reason was that any interventions would depend on the decisions of the policy development panel, which had not been made at the time of the bidding process. The funding is available only until March next year and the selection panel considered that other bids were better able to deliver measurable outcomes in the short time available.

Whether or not an area has a project selected for funding, we strongly believe that the funding will be of great benefit to all areas that are affected by the crime and disorder associated with prostitution. Projects should provide some ideas about good practice and help to demonstrate what works in tackling prostitution and, equally importantly, what does not work. I look forward to seeing the results and I am sure that Birmingham will be able to learn from the pilot schemes and implement good practice.

The projects focus on the effects of prostitution, but we are also committed to tackling antisocial behaviour in general. The police or the local authority may apply to the magistrates courts for an antisocial behaviour order to prohibit an individual from specific antisocial activities that are likely to cause alarm, harassment or distress. The breach of an order is a criminal offence, and the fact that no more than one in 10 antisocial behaviour orders is breached shows that they are effective in themselves. More than 200 antisocial behaviour orders have been issued in England and Wales since 1 April 1999. They have been used successfully in a variety of cases, including those tackling harassment to residents caused by prostitutes and their clients.

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I understand that antisocial behaviour orders have been used against 15 prostitutes in Birmingham, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend. The breach of one of those orders resulted in a 12-week prison sentence. I look forward to hearing about the effectiveness of other orders when that information becomes available. Birmingham is one of many centres of good practice in using this method of tackling disorder. Those who have still to use antisocial behaviour orders should note other successes and follow their example.

Local authorities and the police are required to get together with other agencies to form crime and disorder partnerships responsible for developing and implementing strategies for reducing crime and disorder in their areas. We have written to crime and disorder partnerships reminding them that they should include antisocial behaviour orders as a separate element of their strategy, and that they should monitor such behaviour in their areas.

I understand that the policy development panel in Birmingham is in favour of a further review of the law on prostitution, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Although street offences were beyond its terms of reference, the report of the sex offences review, "Setting the Boundaries", recommends that there should be a further review of the law on prostitution. That is a recommendation to Ministers and it will be considered in the light of the responses to the consultation exercise. The period of consultation ended in March 2001and we received more than 650 good responses to the document, which we are considering in detail.

"Setting the Boundaries" also recognises the need for effective legislation to deal with those who exploit others for the purpose of prostitution. It recommends separate offences to cover the exploitation of adults and children, to set an unambiguous standard that the sexual exploitation of children is wrong. It is important that we tackle both the problems to which prostitution can give rise—exploitation by pimps and the nuisance that the activity of sex workers and their clients can cause especially in residential areas—as my hon. Friend has clearly recognised. The Government are therefore undertaking a comprehensive review of all the legislation in that area. This debate has enabled us to focus on some of the areas that my hon. Friend rightly identified. However, I am sure that she will recognise that these are complex issues, and that we need to be clear on the broad direction in which to tackle them.

Recent changes in legislation have made a real improvement in the lives of residents in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere in the country. However, she will realise that legislation is only part of the solution. Local initiatives and the involvement of communities in tackling such issues are vital if we are to find good practice. I am pleased that my hon. Friend has highlighted the good work that is going on in Birmingham, the good practices that are being established and the work that has been done by residents involved in the new initiatives. I am sure that, working with the local authority and with my hon. Friend, residents will try to ensure that everyone living in areas blighted by this problem will have a better quality of life. I look forward to seeing some results in the coming months.

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