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4 Dec 2008 : Column 202

One of the things that would help—this is not a matter for legislation—is faster progress on the outer London allowance for police officers, so that the Metropolitan police stop stealing our officers. I have become a bore about that issue, but it is a serious matter for my constituency.

Another thing that would help is effective punishment when people are convicted of crimes. I was glad to welcome the Justice Secretary and the Home Secretary to my constituency earlier this week. My right hon. Friends came as part of the relaunch of the scheme that means that people who are sentenced to serve community sentences can be seen to be serving them. I am confident that that will mean that instead of 12 young lads leaning on rakes and not doing very much in the local park—I know why they are there, but most of the general public probably think that their taxes are paying for them to be there—they can be made to do something other than lean on their rakes. Effective community sentencing is absolutely critical, but we need to deal with other kinds of sentence too.

I am depressed about the slow progress being made on the Corston report. Women are, overwhelmingly, not violent offenders, yet they are disproportionately sentenced to jail, which is very ineffective in changing their behaviour and rehabilitating them. Jailing a mother is likely to create a future generation of criminals, so I hope that there will be faster progress on that matter in future.

Another crime that we have experienced in Slough over the past year is people trafficking. One of the few convictions in Britain for child trafficking was in my constituency. I am glad that the police and the prosecution authorities took the matter seriously. When I talked to those involved it was clear to me that people trafficking has become the preferred profiteering mechanism for organised crime, over and above drug trafficking. It is more profitable. It is horrifying that a child is worth £100,000 a year to their trafficker for doing nothing more than begging and selling The Big Issue. I am referring to a real case. In a year, the controller of the child made that amount of profit from the child.

We have to bear down more comprehensively and effectively on people trafficking, which is one of the reasons why I was glad to hear of the Home Secretary’s commitment to sign the convention very soon. However, we need more effective policing, so I was disappointed to learn that the Metropolitan police, having taken taxpayers’ money to open a trafficking policing centre, decided to pocket the money—as far as I could see—and close it again. How were the Metropolitan police able to get away with that? A real issue of accountability is involved. The Queen’s Speech talked of improving the accountability of policing, but on a matter on which I believe the whole House is united—

Mr. Straw: It may help my hon. Friend if I deal with that issue, which was also raised by an Opposition speaker. There was a funding issue in connection with the continuation of the human trafficking unit in the Metropolitan police. However, I am happy to report to the House that it has been resolved for the forthcoming financial year, by agreement, to fund the unit jointly between the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police Service. Meanwhile, an urgent review is being carried out so that future funding is assured.

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Fiona Mactaggart: I am glad to hear that. None the less, the matter raises the issue of the accountability of the Metropolitan police. I shall say more about police accountability because, with respect to the Justice Secretary, it sounds to me as though we have just been experiencing a bit of brinkmanship. The Metropolitan police decided they wanted to up the ante and get a bit more money from the Home Office, so they did what people do when they want more money from their paymasters, and threatened to shut something they really cared about. It sounds to me as if that is what happened, and I am concerned about some of the police accountability proposals in the Queen’s Speech, because I think we shall see more of that kind of stuff.

Under the proposed new methods for police accountability, there will be real concern and argument about operational matters—as we saw in the House today—and the police will be constantly looking over their shoulder. There will also be more of the brinkmanship that I described—and I should be grateful for reassurance that that will not happen.

On the general issue of people trafficking, the other group who are most at risk are women trafficked for sexual purposes. One of the reasons why that becomes more possible is the commodification of sex, which has become quite common in a number of areas, two of which the Queen’s Speech proposes to deal with—and both of which I profoundly welcome.

The first area is lap dancing. It is extraordinary that the lap-dancing industry can claim that it does not represent sexual-encounter establishments. In my understanding, there is more sexual encounter in a lap-dancing club than in any of the bookshops and sex toy shops that require such a licence. I am very glad indeed that—this is rather late, but it is very welcome—it is proposed to require such premises to be licensed as sexual-encounter establishments. Although quite legal, those establishments profoundly exploit young women, who usually have to pay for the right to work in them, pay for their uniforms and pay for their drinks. As a result, they can end up out of pocket after an evening’s work, and their managers deliberately ensure that there are more dancers than customers, in a way that creates gross exploitation of women.

The same kind of context creates the exploitation of women who are being sold for sexual services through prostitution. I am glad that the proposal in the Queen’s Speech is to focus not on those women, who are so often victimised, but much more on their customers, and to create a strict liability offence that is parallel to a number of other offences in Britain. If someone is driving with bald tyres, they are committing a strict liability offence. Even if someone did not know that their tyres were bald, it need only be proved that they were driving the car, and that the tyres were bald, to show that they were responsible. Again, if someone employs someone who does not have the right to work, the employer is committing a strict liability offence. In my view, it should be exactly the same, at the least, for prostitution.

I hope that in this case, we do not fall into the trap that some other European countries, such as Finland, have fallen into, where prosecutions have not taken place. I feel that targeting the purchaser is the best way to protect women. I hold that view not because of any piousness about selling sexual services, but because I
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believe that prostitution, as it is practised, represents a gross example of violence against women. Between 1996 and 2003, 72 women prostitutes were murdered in Britain. Most of them were selling themselves on the street. More have been murdered since. If we enforce the new proposals, it will be a fitting memorial to Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls and Paula Clennell, all of whom were murdered so recently in Ipswich.

We should follow those other countries that have ensured that the target is the purchaser. That is the trend now. Some Opposition Members would suggest that we need to regularise and legalise the whole trade. But in countries that have done that, such as the Netherlands, the trade has grown, and more women are subjected to violence as a consequence. It is no accident that Nevada, which has the most legal prostitution of any state in the United States of America, also has the highest homicide rate for women. But I urge the Home Office, while targeting the punter, to remove the legal offences that women who are in prostitution are prosecuted for. The Government should get rid of the term, “common prostitute”. They should get rid of criminal sanctions for soliciting. Women should not be fined or jailed for soliciting, because many of them are controlled. Arguably, they should get rid of the practice of prosecuting two women who work together for brothel-keeping, because in those circumstances, we could put the responsibility where it truly lies. If the logic of the Home Secretary’s position is that the responsibility is the client’s, exploited women should not be criminalised. If they were not, they would be much more likely to report the violent punters who are every day, in every town, raping, hitting and damaging women in prostitution. Until we can make those women safe, the steps that have been announced are insufficient.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a danger that if the Government pass the law on strict liability for the customers of sex workers, that will be all that is done? If the law is not enforced, the whole thing will fail. The lessons to be learned from the police and social services operation in Ipswich, from Pentameter 1 and 2 and from the Met’s special unit on trafficking, are that if we put the resources and effort into enforcing the existing laws that make trafficking illegal, we can have an effect. If we simply pass more laws—several speakers this afternoon have talked about the legislative diarrhoea of passing more and more laws but not enforcing them—we will not achieve anything.

Fiona Mactaggart: If we put effort behind any law, it will work better. That is obvious. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we could do that, but I have spoken to people who are involved in the prostitution scene in Ipswich, and although they have managed effectively to end street prostitution in Ipswich using current laws, and with superhuman effort, they would generally welcome the kind of initiative proposed. They would also welcome greater clarity concerning their ability to target demand, because they have been able to protect women in Ipswich more effectively by focusing on demand.

Those people provided exit support and better nurturing to women who were in prostitution, and helped them to leave prostitution. They used some of the pressure
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mechanisms that still exist for women who were trying hard to stay in prostitution, but they could have done with more effective powers. That is exactly why countries such as Lithuania, Finland and South Korea have introduced such legislation. In almost every case, the trigger point was women’s deaths. In South Korea, 14 women died in a fire in a brothel because the brothel-keeper had locked the doors so that people could not get out from inside, but could get in from outside. The Swedish law that prohibits the purchase of sexual services was introduced following the murder of a woman prostitute. If we followed our partner countries, we could make women safer.

On the immigration proposals in the Bill, I am anxious that the probationary citizenship proposals and the permanent residence proposals that will substitute for the current, fairly clear, route to indefinite leave to remain are much more contingent on certain issues. As a consequence, people might have insecure status for longer, which might allow them to be exploited. I am concerned about that lack of clarity, as clarity has always been a good part of Britain’s immigration law compared with other European countries, where people’s status might be a bit insecure for rather a long time.

In Britain, it has been fairly clear where such people are on the ladder, and when they have reached a particular point, they have known that they had indefinite leave to remain and that they could apply for citizenship. The new law is much less clear and depends much more on short-term changes in the immigration rules. That will create the kind of insecurity, for communities, that we have previously avoided by the clarity in our immigration law. That would be unwelcome. I would be glad if my anxiety about that could be proved unfounded, and I would like to know what proposals are in train to ensure that people are clear and confident about their status.

I want to finish by making another complaint—I am sorry about that. I welcome the things that we are doing; it is just the details that make me frustrated. My final complaint is about the proposals for the cohesion fund, or whatever it is to be called. It is a surcharge on immigration fees in order to help local communities to deal with the consequences of migration. The local community in Slough is an obvious example of a place that needs such help. We have had a 10 per cent. increase in the birth rate, and we are expecting 11 new primary classes, but we only have the money for two. We could use the whole of the fund, and still need more. That is part of the problem with the fund: it will raise expectations but fail to fulfil them.

There is worse, however. The people who cannot be charged under the proposals are EU citizens, and many of the recent arrivals have been from the EU. Those who will be eligible for the charge are therefore the wives, husbands and children of long-term residents, many of whom are British citizens, who are already paying hundreds of pounds for their visas. A wife will pay more than £1,000 for her visa and application for permanent residence; a child will pay £515. On top of that, there is now to be a surcharge. That action in itself will damage race relations. It will place an unfair burden on our ethnic minority communities, and the tension that already exists between different minorities in Britain will be exacerbated by the charge. I urge the Home
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Office to think again. I believe that the proposal is well meant, and that it is designed to help places such as Slough to deal with the real challenges that they face, but I do not believe that people have researched its consequences, which could be profoundly damaging to race relations in the town that I represent.

3.52 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I appreciate having the opportunity to speak at this relatively late hour. Not having heard all the introductory Front-Bench speeches, I shall be circumspect, but I want to make a couple of points nevertheless.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) talked about the trafficking of women for sexual services. I remember having some quite acrimonious correspondence about that with one of my constituents recently. His view was that the proposals were unnecessary, that they represented more ineffective law and that it was wrong to go after the men. I am tempted to send a copy of my hon. Friend’s speech to him, so that he can understand the gravity of the situation and the need to do something about this heinous crime, as I described it in my letter to him; that did not go down terribly well, but it was nevertheless my opinion. These activities are too hidden and out of the way, so far as people’s general understanding is concerned. Some people think that they do not need to be dealt with, but of course they do.

I want to make a couple of quick observations on the overall perspective of the Queen’s Speech, followed by some comments that are pertinent to home affairs and justice. There are some appealing Bills in the Queen’s Speech. I very much welcome our attempt to put into a legislative framework our desire to remove child poverty. I am also pleased to see the ongoing rationale for local economic development and community regeneration. I am particularly pleased, as I said to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House in business questions earlier, to see that the marine Bill and the new coastal access arrangements are to be brought into statute. There were those who said that that was never going to happen, and that every Government put such measures on the back burner where they would never see the light of day. I am pleased to see that they are going to see the light of day, and I congratulate the Government in that regard.

It would be helpful if we could make rapid progress on the floods and water Bill, which was the subject of the second part of my question to my right hon. and learned Friend. The Bill should receive early pre-legislative scrutiny so that it does not have to wait the full parliamentary cycle. Some of us have constituents who cannot afford to wait that long.

On home affairs and justice, one is tempted to say, “Here we go again.” The Government have legislated regularly on these topics. I shall examine some aspects of the criminal justice system, rather than the legislation per se. Next week is justice week and a number of us will address various justice trade unions on Wednesday to talk about some of the issues that they raise with us. I make no apology for using that as the backcloth for a discussion about where we have got to and some of the concerns that will be expressed to us next week in the context of the trade union approach to justice.

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The Police Federation, the National Association of Probation Officers and the Prison Officers Association are important representative bodies that we must take along with us when we make changes. I have been lobbied by a number of them. I would have been lobbied last Friday by Unison about some of the changes to the probation service, but unfortunately it was unable to make the meeting.

My starting point is that there is at least concern across the terrain about some of the budgetary arrangements affecting probation in particular and other aspects of justice. The probation service’s budget has stood still for at least a couple of years. There are those who would say, and I cannot disclaim these figures, that there is effectively a 25 per cent. cut. It is good to hear that we still want to use community payback. I may have my views on whether wearing nice DayGlo-coloured uniforms is the best way to get people to behave, but it is important that we recognise that those people are demonstrably working in the community in a way that brings it home to our constituents that there are different forms of justice, besides sending people to prison.

If there are substantial cuts in the probation service budget, one must ask who will supervise community payback and who will ensure that the work undertaken by offenders is properly constituted, measured and scrutinised and that proper outcomes are achieved. This is not to do with legislation per se, but if we do not have the structure of the justice system right, and we do not provide an appropriate budget, it is impossible to pretend that that system can work properly. I raise the issue of the budget and how much money we are spending, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice may want to say something about how the new legislation will pan out if the money is not available to invest properly in that area.

Most of that budget goes on people, because of course it is people who supervise offenders and who work in prisons to keep offenders in prison. Anyone who knows anything about the probation service knows that it is an ageing service. I am told that over the next three years a substantial number of probation officers will retire, which means that even if we are spending money on recruitment, we must spend considerably more to have an impact on the service. We need to recruit appropriately in order to have skilled people to take on the work of those who have retired.

I am talking about the future. We go on about restorative justice and some of the ideas such as community payback. However, those ideas cannot come to fruition if there are not sufficient people to run the services. I take an interest in this issue, and the probation service in my area has been through some turmoil of late. Our acting chief probation officer has just left, and I wish every success to the new one, who starts in January. As I say, there has been turmoil in the service in respect of knowing who is running it.

Again, that is against the background of the National Offender Management Service, and some Labour Members have yet to be convinced that NOMS is the great salvation of the probation service. There is no secret about the fact that most in the probation service still feel belittled at being lumped in with NOMS. Perhaps that was a whizzo managerial idea, but at the end of the day it is the probation officers working on the ground who
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really make the difference. If there is unhappiness among those staff about NOMS and its structures, we must at least listen to them.

My concluding point is about legislation, budgets and people, and how they can make the future of the criminal justice system even more difficult. It would be good to hear that we are giving a period of stability to the justice system so that at least some of the wider questions had time to be answered and some of the changes that took place in yesteryear could be properly evaluated to see whether they were working. However, the changes can work only if the budgets are in place. I make a plaintive plea—not surprisingly, it is universally welcomed by unions that work in this area—not only for stability, but for a budget to ensure that the changes introduced in the past have time to work through.

As I said, there are difficulties in getting to the bottom of the figures in respect of what we really know about the budgetary expenditure. It would help if there were a debate—an Adjournment debate, perhaps—to look at how the probation service is working within the wider criminal justice system. I hope that we will get clarity. I am not necessarily against change, which may be for the better, but I am against change that cannot work because it does not have the allied expenditure to ensure that there is forward movement, so that there is better provision and offenders are properly treated and so that our constituents know that the criminal justice system is getting better. We have to invest in the service to ensure that that is the case.

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