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19 Nov 2002 : Column 511—continued

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement of a review of the law on prostitution and, in particular, his recognition that prostitution affects neighbourhoods as well. Will he consider measures to deal with kerb-crawlers, who cause a problem in my constituency? Such measures might include the imposition of penalty points on driving licences and the possibility of impounding vehicles. In our experience, both kerb-crawlers and prostitution on the streets can be dealt with very effectively.

Mr. Blunkett: The existing changes to the Act have strengthened our powers in relation to arrest. Fixed-penalty notices are a good idea, and it is important to concentrate not just on the women involved but on those who seek them out; but the real criminals in prostitution are the organised gangs behind it—people who capture young women in particular by enticing them into addiction to class A drugs, and the pimps who then use them not only to feed their own habits but to sustain themselves in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Unless we tackle that organised mafia criminality, rather than merely concentrating on the individuals involved, we shall have missed the point.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): The Home Secretary may know that in my constituency live the families of the murdered girls Sarah Payne and Milly Dowler. I know that he has said he will listen to the Dowlers, as his predecessor listened to the Paynes. I am against naming and shaming, but will the Home Secretary confirm that his proposals will lead to indeterminate sentencing for sex offenders, with no premature release, and to much tighter arrangements to monitor offenders after their release if they have previously received treatment?

During their inquiries into the Milly Dowler case, the Surrey police found many people who had never been on a sex offenders register but probably ought to have been. The danger to individuals in the community exists, however tight the law is. Will the Home Secretary give some support to the AMBER—American missing broadcast emergency response—system, which at least gives the police a mechanism for conveying information to the public? It is possible that, during the first critical hours after an abduction, someone will notice something that will help the police.

Mr. Blunkett: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I have met Sara Payne twice and Michael Payne once, and I got in touch with the Dowler family after the tragedy. I am prepared not only to continue to listen to them but to respond in the way in which the hon. Gentleman requests. Within days, we will publish the criminal justice Bill, which will include proposals on indeterminate sentences, substantial strengthening of monitoring and registration requirements. I or one of my Ministers will be happy to talk to him personally about the Bill as soon as it is published.

I am prepared to look at the AMBER alert. I pay tribute to the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). I made remarks earlier about plagiarism. Where there is good evidence, and where we need to pick people up, I am happy to

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plagiarise his suggestion that we use more upfront methods of communication across the country, including public screens, to warn people. We should share those ideas, because it makes Parliament a much more worthwhile place. Even with the present state of the Opposition, all of us have to bear it in mind that at some point the electorate will have had enough of us.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but will he look again at the issue of anonymity for defendants in rape cases, especially those involving rape within marriage? Many women hesitate before taking cases to court not only because a tiny percentage of defendants are convicted but because of the problems of publicity for them and their families.

Mr. Blunkett: The person making the allegation of rape is protected. My hon. Friend asks about the anonymity of the accused person. The difficulty for us and for the House is how we distinguish between rape and other very serious offences—for example, murder—and the damage that is done to the character of an individual who is accused but found not guilty.

I am prepared to continue to listen because this is a serious issue. We have been through it once before, and for every opinion in one direction there are several in the other: there is no clever, easy answer. There is certainly no political divide on the matter.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): Further to that point, although I broadly welcome almost everything the Home Secretary has said today, I still have some reservations about the planned changes to the law on rape. I welcome the fact that there will still be a presumption of innocence, but I worry whether vexatious claims will be made more likely as a result of the proposals; such claims are made in a very charged atmosphere, and therefore fall in a slightly different category. Will he give an assurance that his proposals will not encourage vexatious claims? Subject to the last question, will he offer Labour Members a free vote on whether there should be anonymity for those accused of rape, because there is anonymity for those who are said to be the victims of rape?

Mr. Blunkett: Let me take the two substantive questions. The reasonableness test is important. So that there is no misunderstanding, particularly outside, it is worth making it clear that I have rejected the suggestion that someone inebriated could claim that they were unable to give consent—as opposed to someone who was unconscious for whatever reason, including because of alcohol, and was therefore unable to do so—on the ground that we do not want mischievous accusations in circumstances where someone genuinely had reasonable and honest belief of consent.

On the latter point, I am always prepared to consider and to recommend free votes to my right hon. and hon. Friends; they are sometimes very handy in difficult circumstances. We all learn lessons from that. I said that there is no party political difference and that it is a finely balanced argument. It does the House quite a lot of good if occasionally we accept that on major substantive

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legislation and, on particular clauses and amendments, we are prepared to argue our case and to hear our colleagues, rather than to enforce a three-line Whip.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's proposed changes to ensure that there will be no excuses for sexually assaulting a child under the age of 13. I should point out, however, that, in two or three recent cases in my constituency, children between the ages of 13 and 16 were involved in sexual relationships with middle-aged men, yet the police and the Crown Prosecution Service refused to take any action whatsoever. It would be helpful if my right hon. Friend assured the House that we are not reducing the age of consent to 13, and if he encouraged the police and the CPS to take action against what are still unlawful acts in such circumstances.

Mr. Blunkett: It is precisely because of the inability to take action in the circumstances that my hon. Friend describes that, far from taking away something, we are bringing in a new law with a 10-year maximum penalty. It is correct to say that there is a real difficulty—not least when the participants are unwilling to give evidence—but we do need to tackle this situation, because it is unacceptable. The current legislative framework does not allow the police to deal with such matters decisively.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): The Home Secretary has mentioned several very useful initiatives that are to be commended, but may I raise one matter that concerns me and doubtless many others inside and outside this House: the notion of applying sex offender orders to people convicted of violent offences? In a typical scenario in which a person is charged with a grievous bodily harm, section 20, offence that is ultimately dealt with as an actual bodily harm, section 47, offence, some police officers will feel aggrieved that that person was not dispatched to custody. Will the Home Secretary accept the need for an independent evaluation of the police's belief in Xa real risk"?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, I will—on the evidence adduced and the sufficiency for the Crown Prosecution Service to pursue a case in the first place, and in the light of whether evidence was disqualified because it was shown that it had no relevance whatsoever to a sexual offence. This is a very delicate area. The research that we are publishing today shows that a real problem exists—a massive propensity in relation to further sex crimes—but I have emblazoned on my heart a point that was made earlier: in all such cases, we must balance the need for public protection and the well-being of the community against the civilised and human rights of the individual.

Vera Baird (Redcar): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, irrespective of whether the proposed change to the defence of honest belief—requiring that it be Xreasonable"— increases the number of convictions, perhaps its primary importance is that it ought to encourage a change of attitude? It should deter some men from assuming consent, and it should tell them that their conduct will be scrutinised according to stricter,

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but reasonable, criteria from now on. Will he give me his assessment of the impact of this change on the relevance of previous sexual history in rape trials?

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