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13 Dec 2007 : Column 447

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): Our policy is to consider alternatives to prosecution to help prostitutes to find a route out of prostitution while emphasising the need to arrest and prosecute kerb crawlers. That is part of a strategy to focus enforcement action on the purchasers who create the demand.

Tony Lloyd: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer, which I find reassuring. In areas such as my constituency, where there are two locations where street prostitution is known, people find kerb crawlers to be the nuisance. Many people are sympathetic to the view that driving prostitutes further underground puts women who are already at risk at even greater risk. Will my hon. and learned Friend confirm that the Government’s strategy is not to make the prostitute’s position even more dangerous?

The Solicitor-General: I can confirm that. I compliment my hon. Friend for taking a long interest in the care of women in prostitution in the two areas of his constituency. I completely agree that crackdowns on kerb crawlers must be carried out in conjunction with diverting prostitutes through appropriate local projects. I am impressed by the strategy employed in my area of Cleveland, where referral workers are available in custody suites and work closely with police and vice units to ensure that women who are stopped by the police can be referred to appropriate services straight away.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Next year, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), will visit Sweden and the Netherlands to look at measures introduced to tackle the demand side of the prostitution equation. Will the Solicitor-General consider accompanying him?

The Solicitor-General: I intend to go with my hon. Friend to Sweden to look at those measures and to do the best comparative study that we can, so that we can fully inform ourselves. The hon. Gentleman was on the Committee that considered the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, so he will have heard my hon. Friend announce that we will review the way in which we tackle demand to see whether we need to be tougher. That trip and other research will feed into the review.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Has my hon. and learned Friend seen the research report entitled “It’s just like going to the supermarket”? It suggests that our interventions with men who buy sex are not particularly effective, and that it would be more effective to reduce the normalisation of the commercialisation of sexual relationships that underpins those men’s belief that they are entitled to buy women’s bodies.

The Solicitor-General: Yes, I have seen that research. Indeed, I attended the launch in Whitechapel. The report contains interviews with a range of different men who use prostitutes. At times during their interviews, they referred to it as being just like going to the supermarket to buy any other commodity. They said that they would not be deterred if it were a criminal offence, but different research suggests that they would be. We must see what the best approaches are, and that is why we are reviewing demand.


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Violence Against Women

14. Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): What the policy of the Crown Prosecution Service is on prosecutions involving violence against women. [173640]

The Solicitor-General: The Crown Prosecution Services recognises the devastating impact that violence against women can have on victims, their families and communities and, more broadly, on the drive towards equality for women. We will prosecute such offences robustly, and, to that end, the CPS is consulting on its violence against women strategy, which sets out how it will improve co-ordination and the prosecution response.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank the Solicitor-General for that answer, but we need to persuade women victims of violence to come forward, bring charges and give evidence if we are to achieve successful prosecutions. In my constituency, we have an excellent track record, with many organisations supporting women to do just that. In the summer, I visited the family justice centre in Croydon, where those agencies are collocated in the same building with police, social services and housing services. Does my hon. and learned Friend think that we should promote new ways of working that will encourage more women to come forward and give evidence so that we can achieve more successful prosecutions?

The Solicitor-General: Yes, I do, and the CPS has been in the vanguard of that approach. Its deliberate policy is to have local prosecutors engage with local voluntary organisations that support women, so that places that are likely to be the first ports of call for victims of domestic violence can be reassured that the CPS is right behind them. My hon. Friend will know that we now have a system of specialist domestic violence courts that are much more understanding of the context in which domestic violence takes place. In addition, there are now a large number of independent domestic violence advocates who befriend a woman once she makes a complaint and who stay beside her all the way through proceedings. We have made progress, and the CPS is truly at the forefront of what we are doing.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) is absolutely right in what she says. Violence against women is alien to everything that is decent, but will the Solicitor-General accept that the punishment in such cases must be severe if it is to deter violence? I believe that that is the only way for society to show that it is totally opposed to violence against women.

The Solicitor-General: I am very pleased indeed to get such wholehearted support from such a distinguished Member of the House. I agree completely that sentencing must be appropriately harsh so that the very clear message is sent out that domestic violence—and all violence against women—will not be tolerated. There is no offence of domestic violence, so any punishment will depend on the level of assault that finally brings someone to court. However, the domestic
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violence courts are fully aware of the context in which such crimes occur, and they well understand that a woman is likely to have suffered many assaults before she makes a complaint. I am sure that they contextualise their approach to perpetrators in that way.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Although lots of women come forward and report crimes of violence against them, many subsequently withdraw the complaint. Do the domestic violence courts encourage women to stay with the claims that they make, and not withdraw them?

The Solicitor-General: Yes, they do. The role of the independent domestic violence advocate is literally to befriend the person making the complaint and then to drive the prosecution in the sense of making sure that her interests are represented at all times. The IDVA also tries to take from the complainant the burden of other problems caused by reporting domestic violence. For instance, the woman involved might have to move house or her children, or she might need help with child care if previously her in-laws had helped with that. She can be relieved of all such burdens by the IDVA, who will be a professional with good networks in the public services. It is hoped that a claimant will be sustained by that support and have the energy needed to take a prosecution through.

Attorney-General

15. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What recent representations she has received on the future role of the Attorney-General; and if she will make a statement. [173641]

The Solicitor-General: The Government’s consultation on the Attorney-General closed on 30 November. We received about 50 written responses and the Attorney-General held a number of seminars and meetings with interested parties. That included a useful session with Members of this House and the House of Lords, to which the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) contributed. The Government will consider all the views expressed and will announce their conclusions in the near future.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General for the consultation, which was very effective and inclusive. The Law Officers often give the Government advice as a matter of course about the interpretation of the law or the meaning of legislative proposals that is easy to disclose. However, on other occasions Ministers present policy propositions to Parliament that they argue are justified because advice has been taken from the Law Officers. Does the Solicitor-General accept that there is now an overwhelmingly strong case that such advice should be published automatically? The most obvious recent, public and famous example of that is the advice that the Government received about the legality of the invasion of Iraq.

The Solicitor-General: I have two points. First, nobody could possibly expect me to pre-empt a consultation that finished only two weeks ago, so I
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shall not do so. Secondly, the position is far from the way the hon. Gentleman chooses to couch it. No Minister ought to disclose that there has ever been legal advice from the Law Officers, let alone what it was.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Imprisonment

21. Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on alternatives to imprisonment for women. [173629]

The Minister for Equality (Barbara Follett): I have had many discussions with ministerial colleagues on this subject. As my hon. Friend knows, last week the Government published our response to Baroness Corston’s review, in which we agreed to promote the effective use of community orders and set up projects, which will report next April, to look at alternatives to custody and review the future of the women’s prison estate.

Mrs. Moon: In a report for the Prison Reform Trust, the New Economics Foundation estimated that savings of £18 million could be made if community-based sentences were available for the 2,000 non-violent women offenders who have been imprisoned. Will my hon. Friend hold cross-Government discussions so that we can submit to the review next year a full understanding of the costs and the effect on women and their children? We need to take into account the costs of health, housing, benefits and education, and care costs for children, to show the global cost of imprisoning non-violent women.

Barbara Follett: I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern about the issue and I am aware of her work for a women’s prison in Wales, where there is none. It is one of the issues addressed in Baroness Corston’s review, and it is why the National Offender Management Service put in a bid to set up Turnaround—the demonstrator project for women offenders in Wales. I shall do all I can to ensure that the costs of imprisoning non-violent women for short periods are made as transparent as possible.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the courts should treat men and women equally when sentencing them, and that the best alternative to sending women to prison is for them not to commit crime in the first place?

Barbara Follett: Historically, men and women have not been treated as equals. At present, women make up 6 per cent. of the total prison population and there are not enough appropriate women’s prisons. I value Baroness Corston’s report, because it could lead us to a new way of treating women offenders.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): When women are given a custodial sentence, often it is not just the women who are punished but their children, too. Children often end up in care, and as a disproportionate
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number of women in the prison system have been through the care system themselves we could be perpetuating a cycle. We must look at non-custodial sentences for non-persistent, non-violent women offenders to keep families together and maintain their stability.

Barbara Follett: I agree. At present, 8,000 children a year have their living arrangements disrupted by their mother’s imprisonment, even if it is only a short period. That is why Baroness Corston’s review recommended the use of intensive community sentences, and I am committed to them.

Women (Political Life)

22. Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to increase the representation of women in political life. [173630]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): The Government are committed to ensuring that our democracy is representative, and that means in local councils, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the European Parliament and the House. The most effective policy for increasing women’s representation has been making it lawful to have women-only shortlists for selection.

Ms Clark: My right hon. and learned Friend will be well aware that considerable strides have been made on this side of the House in increasing the representation of women in this place. However, unfortunately, large parts of Britain have still never had a woman representing them directly in this place, in a devolved Assembly or at council level. I should be grateful for her thoughts on what further can be done by Government and Parliament to ensure that women are better represented.

Ms Harman: We are committed to extending the legal provision that allows political parties, if they so choose, to increase women’s representation in our democracy by allowing all-women shortlists. When I was first in the House of Commons, there were only 10 Labour women Members of Parliament, but because we used all-women shortlists we now have 96 strong Labour women Members of Parliament, who speak up for women in this country and champion issues such as child care and tackling domestic violence. The Conservative party, which eschews all-women shortlists, has increased its number of women Members of Parliament from 13 when I was first elected to the sum total of 17 now. I want to see more women Members on both sides of the House, but until the Conservatives have all-women shortlists, they will be doomed to fail.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Perhaps the right hon. and learned Lady would like to congratulate the council in my constituency. After the recent local elections and a stunning Tory victory, nearly half the Conservative councillors are women—without using all-women shortlists—a woman leads the council and there is an excellent female chairman. Will the right hon. and learned Lady congratulate the Conservatives in Forest of Dean on that excellent performance?


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Ms Harman: I do want to see more women in local government. I warmly support all the women in local government, who work not only in the economy and public services and among their families, but in the community as local representatives.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Congratulate them.

Ms Harman: I will congratulate them. My hon. Friend the Minister for Equality and I are concerned to ensure the proper representation of women of black and Asian ethnic origin. Black and Asian women are chronically under-represented. There are something like 176 women black and Asian councillors in the whole of England and Wales; if black and Asian communities were properly represented, there would be nearer 1,000. We have to ensure that there is proper gender representation in our councils, in Parliament and in the devolved Assemblies, but we also have to ensure diverse ethnic representation, so that this House reflects the communities that we seek to represent.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that next year is the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage, which you, Mr. Speaker, are generously hosting a reception to mark. Will she publish proposals for using the 90th anniversary to highlight the contribution that women have made to public life and the initiatives that she will take to increase the number of women in public life?

Ms Harman: I welcome my hon. Friend’s suggestion and I will do exactly that. It is not just the numbers that are important. The women Members of Parliament who were elected in 1997, and also in 2001 and 2005, have made a difference to the political agenda discussed in the House. I can remember when there was virtually no discussion of maternity leave, domestic violence, or support for families caring for older relatives. Those things are particular preoccupations of women and their families. Women’s representation has meant that people’s lives are reflected much more accurately in the House of Commons.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Some women are put off becoming MPs because they think that the House has a rather sexist, male-dominated culture, and that the job is all about making speeches and engaging in aggressive debate, although that is actually a small part of the job. Does the Minister agree that, although all parties must continue their own efforts to get more women elected, there is also a need for a cross-party initiative to communicate better the fact that elected politics can be incredibly enjoyable and rewarding, and to change some of those negative perceptions?

Ms Harman: I think the important thing is to say to women and men that they should recognise that it is a great honour and privilege to be a Member of Parliament, to represent a constituency and to work for progressive change. It is important that the House should be a team of women and men working together, as the Government are.


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Rape

23. Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with the Solicitor-General on the Government’s consultation “Convicting Rapists and Protecting Women”. [173631]

The Minister for Equality (Barbara Follett): I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Solicitor-General on the subject. As my hon. Friend will know, the Government recently published their response to the consultation, in which we agreed to legislate to admit videoed statements and hearsay evidence in trials, and find ways to dispel the myths about rape that can influence juries. All those measures are designed to encourage complainants to sustain prosecutions.

Mrs. Hodgson: Rape victims in my constituency are well supported by Rape Crisis support, but concerns have been expressed about the future funding for such support. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with colleagues about how that funding will be sustained in the future?

Barbara Follett: Ministers—and this Minister—are very concerned about the issue. I have had, and will have more, meetings with colleagues to discuss the sustainability of funding for Rape Crisis centres. I have also met representatives of the Rape Crisis network to discuss its future funding needs.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Young teenagers who are brought into this country by traffickers, and who are then released by the police, are sometimes worried about giving evidence. Will the Government bring forward a proposal for a number of safe houses across the country in which those women could be protected, and which would allow them to take part in future prosecutions?

Barbara Follett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that good suggestion, which I will raise in the many discussions that I hope to have on the issue in the new year.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I heard the Minister’s reply to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson). The Minister will no doubt be aware that on 8 January, the funding for Peterborough Rape Crisis counselling group will end after 20 years, putting in jeopardy the fantastic work that the group does for women and girls who have suffered from sexual abuse or sexual crimes. Perhaps she could have a word with her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the funding continues, and that Peterborough people, particularly women and girls, have a service dealing with that most traumatic crime.

Barbara Follett: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. In my dual capacity as Minister for Equality and Minister for the East of England, I will have discussions with the Peterborough Rape Crisis centre, and I will look at the local and national funding issues.


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