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20 Nov 2002 : Column 690—continued

6.16 pm

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): The biggest law and order problem in my constituency is antisocial behaviour. I was tempted to spend my eight minutes talking about that, but as we have not yet seen any proposals on it, it would be difficult to comment constructively.

I want to pick up on something that my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said. It is clear that when communities start to work together to tackle antisocial behaviour, and members of the public become actively involved in working with agencies, positive steps are taken. However, there are parts of my constituency where people are still frightened to come forward because they think that there will be retribution if they get involved. Whatever the legislation says, we need to find a way of making sure that communities feel safe to work together.

I want to concentrate my remarks on the proposed legislation to deal with sex offenders. I welcome the document that was published yesterday and many of its proposals, including, in particular, the special protection for children and the most vulnerable in our society and the new crime of grooming. However, I make no apologies for spending most of my time talking about something that is not of immediate interest to the vast majority of my constituents because it is a hidden problem.

Yesterday I asked a question about sex tourism, and I was heartened by the Home Secretary's positive response. I hope that the forthcoming Bill will provide an opportunity to tackle this problem on a global scale. I first came face to face with it when I visited Cambodia. The visit was arranged by a non-governmental organisation, World Vision, but I had the opportunity to work with and speak to many other NGOs in this field.

While I was in Cambodia I met some of the girls who had been most affected by sex tourism. I visited a centre that rescued young girls from brothels, and I remember a young child who was so tiny that I could only assume that she was the daughter of one of the workers. The child was eight and had been sexually exploited. Her image will remain with me all my life. On a more positive note, I saw a great deal of work, including peer education projects and education for communities to help them try to understand the problem. On a lighter note, I also visited some of the brothel areas. It occurred to me that that was one occasion on which it was helpful to be a woman MP, because when I rang home and said, XI'm visiting the brothel area tonight," people were not unduly worried.

Cambodia is not yet a mainstream tourist destination, but the temple of Angkor Wat was recently voted one of the 50 top places to visit before one dies. Evidence is already emerging of the sex tourism problem, which has been highlighted in a document called, XChildren's

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Work, Adults' Play". In that publication, European men, many of them British, feature among the top five groups of users of what can only be regarded as under-age sex services. Places such as Cambodia and Bangkok are high on the list of people who are increasingly forced to go abroad to obtain their peculiar sexual kicks.

Cambodia's Ministry of Planning estimated that the country has 30,000 prostitutes under 18, its legal age of consent, with over 5,000 young girls in Phnom Penh. Worldwide, it is estimated that 1 million children are new victims of sexual exploitation every year—most of us will find it difficult to get our head round that figure. A lot of prostitution is prompted by poverty, so we must put in place alternatives for young girls who decide that they have no other option in life. I spoke to one young woman—she was 15—who had been rescued from a brothel, but had got used to the lifestyle and liked having money. There was no immediate alternative for her, so attempts need to be made to retrain girls with other skills so that they are not forced down that route again.

Many countries are doing their best to tackle the problems internally, while some poor countries may need the help of the international community. But the paedophile is a cunning beast and will seek other ways of getting his kicks. There is a weakness internationally, and we have to be one step ahead of the problem.

The Government could do a few things in the short term before the forthcoming Bill is introduced. First, when will they ratify the optional protocol—on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography—to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child? Secondly, France and Austria have taken the step of installing their own police in their embassies in Cambodia and possibly elsewhere so that they can better monitor incoming nationals. I hope that the Home Secretary will look at the benefits of the United Kingdom doing that, as it is a positive and practical measure that may deter people from seeking their kicks abroad since they will know that society is one step ahead of them.

There are also problems in the expatriate community. I do not want to distort the issue, as the problems do not all stem from tourism. A large number of people go abroad to work—it is easy to get a job as a teacher, for example. Because there are no police checks and their salary is comparatively high they can employ young girls, ostensibly as maids, and abuse them. Again, there must be international police checks so that when people move from country to country, we are one step ahead of them. My understanding is that known sex offenders do not have to register their travel destination for short visits. I give the Government credit for the Sex Offenders (Notice Requirements) (Foreign Travel) Regulations 2001, which compelled outbound offenders to register, but only for visits of eight days or more. Clearly, quite a lot of abuse can happen in eight days. Communities in different countries must work together to tackle that problem and while we have an opportunity to do something here, we should take the lead.

6.23 pm

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): I welcome many of the Bills in the Queen's Speech, particularly those on home affairs, including the criminal justice Bill and

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measures on tackling antisocial behaviour and sex offences. I wholly endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin).

On criminal justice, the public perception is of rising crime and a lack of police response. The other day, when meeting members of the South Yorkshire branch of the Police Federation, I was told by one that he had been on duty and had received a call from a young woman in distress who wanted a visit from a police officer. She was 137th on his list of calls to be made that day. He said that it was hours before he could attend to that incident. There is therefore a problem concerning the lack of police response to the public's calls. There is also a perception that the punishment does not fit the crime, so I welcome new measures on sentencing. I have previously raised in the House the issue of Crown Prosecution Service cases being dropped before they get to court or while the court case is proceeding as a result of lack of evidence. I have also spoken about the failure of the public interest: members of the public are simply not informed of the collapse of those trials.

I welcome initiatives on victim and witness support, especially the latter. In my constituency, a witness refused to give evidence in trial because he was sitting opposite the defendant while waiting to go into court. For want of a better expression, he simply lost his bottle or received threats from the defendant. He thought that discretion was the better part of valour, left the courthouse and would not give evidence. I therefore welcome the proposals that witnesses will be given support.

I also welcome the measures on antisocial behaviour, which will be debated at length in the House. Antisocial behaviour is a major concern in my constituency, as in other constituencies where people suffer from antisocial acts, graffiti and vandalism. In districts throughout the borough of Barnsley, youths congregate and instil fear into the local populations, even though they are not committing a crime. There is simply a perception among local people that they cannot walk down the street or get past those gangs of youths without being assaulted. I fully endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South said about the problem of antisocial tenants. Some private landlords take advantage of a system in which housing benefit is paid directly to them rather than the tenant—we must take a look at that. In my constituency, a landlord who lives in the midlands refuses to visit a property where problems have arisen. The property is tenanted by a young woman who is not committing any crime, but her boyfriend is a known drugs offender in the area, and the police are finding it difficult to deal with the situation. The boyfriend is making the lives of the surrounding neighbours pure hell. He is a known offender and is wanted for drug and firearm offences. Obviously, local people are afraid.

I endorse comments made today about the need to look at problems caused by air weapons and fireworks. There is a fear in my constituency that fireworks are used as a signalling mechanism, especially among drug dealers. Quite apart from that, fireworks are used throughout the year. They are loud and noisy. At best they are a distraction and nuisance; at worst they are used as weapons and devices to blow up telephone boxes and destroy property. We need more than a code of practice. The time has come to look at introducing a

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legislative measure to restrict the sale and power of fireworks. The problem is getting out of hand and is one of the biggest issues in my postbag at the moment. Similarly, there has been a rash of incidents involving air weapons. I believe that there has been a fatality in the north-east, so the time has come for us to consider the problem carefully.

Although they are no longer part of the home affairs brief, I welcome the measures on alcohol licensing. I declare an interest as honorary adviser to the Northern Licensed Victuallers Association, and very much welcome the reforms in the alcohol and entertainment licensing Bill, especially the deregulation of opening hours. I do not believe that we will get 24-hour licensing in every pub throughout the country, and I do not believe that we would want that, but we can have some sensible relaxation of the law in relation to licensing. The portable licence is to be welcomed, as is the proposal to license the licensee as opposed to the premises. Licensing is not really a judicial function, and it can easily be transferred to a committee of magistrates, much as taxi drivers and others are licensed, as a local authority function.

The relaxation of licensing laws might reduce the antisocial behaviour that occurs at turning-out times, and the problems that the police have to deal with at certain times of the evening. That is well documented in the press, in journals and so on. When we consider alcohol licensing, we should examine the discounting schemes used by pubs and companies. In my area, pubs are a growth industry, and there are numerous applications for licences. We already have far too many public houses. The only way for them to attract a limited market is to offer tickets at #10 entry, which entitles people to drink as much as they like, or to offer two or three drinks for the price of one. Such schemes are leading to problems of drunkenness and disorder. I hope that licensing deregulation will address that.

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