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8.15 pm

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): It is important to put on record on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition that the trafficking and exploitation of women and children is a vile and disgusting trade, and we can all agree that the Bill tries to tackle it more effectively. The question is the means that we should use. I am aware that many hon. Members wish to speak—in retrospect, I think it might have been a good idea to have had two days for Report—so I shall quickly state Her Majesty’s Opposition’s view on two points.

First, there has been a great deal of debate on the definition of “controlled for gain”. Many of us thought that the definition in the original drafting was too broad and would not successfully target those who had been trafficked. Paradoxically, it might have caught many of those who assisted prostitutes in their trade. Government amendments 46 to 48 seek to narrow the original broad wording, and the Government are to be congratulated on that attempt. However, we believe that the language in new clause 25 is more appropriate, for the simple reason that it tracks the language relating to trafficking that is used in the Palermo protocol, which states:

That definition is included in new clause 25.

My second point relates to strict liability. It is important that people listening to the debate understand why we are wary and sceptical about this issue, and why we do not support the Government’s importation of strict liability into the offences in clauses 13 and 14. We are not going soft on the horrible exploitation of vulnerable young women and children in any shape or form, but we do have a concern about the nature of strict liability offences generally. That concern has been put across rather well by Liberty, which has stated that such offences

The proposed offence will apply whether or not a person knows that a prostitute is being controlled for gain or trafficked.

Liberty went on to state a point of principle:

That is our concern, too. Is this a slippery slope? Does it represent the thin end of the wedge? We are going into territory here that would be best avoided.

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Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): My hon. Friend mentions a point of principle, but is there not also a point of practice in respect of parity with the Sexual Offences Act 2003, especially where there is an incorporation of a mental element? In the light of the proposed amendments, we also need to reflect on circumstances involving forced threats and deception; there should be parity of sentencing—not a level 3 fine, but an either-way offence.

Mr. Ruffley: My hon. Friend anticipates me, and his points are well made. That is why we see merit in the proposal in new clause 25 for a “know or ought to know” test instead of a strict liability test, which would mean that it would be an offence only if the accused knew or was reckless as to whether the prostitute was controlled for gain. That will ensure that strict liability does not apply and it also deals with the issue of parity, to which my hon. Friend referred. The offence would require actual knowledge of or recklessness in respect of the circumstances; the person who should have known should be presumed to have had knowledge.

Mr. MacShane: The hon. Gentleman is making his case fairly, but what he is actually saying is that there is going to be very little deterrent and no discouragement. I am not all surprised that Liberty, which is a libertarian organisation, is defending the rights of men to have sex almost on any terms, provided that they can put their money on the table and say later that they had no idea of the conditions of any of the women that they paid to have sex with. Liberty is a deeply reactionary and conservative organisation, whereas we need a more liberal interpretation of—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman does not like having his intervention abbreviated, but we are now running very short of time and I think that he has made his point.

Mr. Ruffley: The right hon. Gentleman makes a point that is traditionally put across in such discussions and we have heard it debated many times. The point here, however, is that moving away from strict liability is not being soft on the offence nor indicative of failing to want a deterrent. I shall rapidly cite the reasons for that claim, before allowing other Members, many of whom have a great deal of knowledge in this subject, to speak.

We believe that the penalties for men who engage in sexual relations with trafficked people should be strengthened, and we support amendments 237 and 240 precisely because they will toughen the penalties for those caught under the new offence. Currently, a person found guilty of the new offence is liable to a fine of up to £1,000. The Government have not proposed any amendments to alter that, but under the amendments I mentioned, a person found guilty of the new offence under clauses 13 and 14 will be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum. On conviction for an indictable offence, a person is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years. Those severe penalties are appropriate given the ghastliness of the crime and offences that we are debating.

It is particularly important for Conservative Members to underscore the abhorrent nature of paying for sex with trafficked individuals, and it is in that spirit of
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toughness, while keeping a certain element of practicability in the back of our minds, that we believe we should move away from a strict liability test and replace it with a “know or should have known” test instead. That is the purport of new clause 25, which we support.

Lynda Waltho: Many of us have had problems with lap-dancing clubs in our constituencies. The arguments were well rehearsed at length in Committee, so I willnot go over them again. I would like to speak to amendments 194 and 199, and Government amendment 54.

We have had trouble in our constituencies because lap-dancing clubs are currently licensed solely under the Licensing Act 2003. Those clubs share the same licences as cafés and karaoke bars and since the 2003 Act it has become very much easier for lap-dancing clubs to obtain a licence and far more difficult for our communities to have a say. Local authorities are also prevented from putting in place vital controls to govern how many licences can be granted in an area and whether private booths should be permitted.

Industry mapping has shown that new lap-dancing venues are opening on a nearly weekly basis and legal advice has shown that concerns relating to gender equality cannot be raised by local authorities or residents during the licensing process. This places local authorities in direct breach of their duties under the gender equality duty, which came into force in 2007.

I applaud the Government’s response to this issue, but they have gone only so far. I think that the Bill is seriously undermined by the fact that the proposed sexual encounter venue category is optional and that venues where lap dancing is provided less than once a month are exempt from the category. In other words, the SEV licensing category is optional. Local authorities will not have to adopt it, although universal application has recently been advocated by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, following a lengthy review of the Licensing Act 2003.

It is crucial that we adopt the SEV category because it will guarantee local communities a voice. The current optional arrangement means that our communities will be deprived of that voice, so they are not guaranteed a greater say in the licensing of lap-dancing clubs because the outcome will depend on whether the local authority in question chooses to adopt that option.

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): In Brighton and Hove, money was ring-fenced for a private Bill to change the licensing law, and there is a will among all parties to control the spread of lap dancing, particularly in small communities like my own in Hove or Slade. There is concern that, on a temporary basis, it will possible to hold up to 11 such events a year, and it will be very difficult to police them in the same successful way that Sussex police have been able to police the larger venues.

Lynda Waltho: Indeed, and it is very difficult—in fact, impossible—for local people to object to those temporary licences; only the police are able to do so, and in my experience they rarely do. This state of affairs applies despite massive objections, a 10,000-name petition that went to No. 10 Downing street and almost mayhem in some constituencies—not least my own.

We also need to protect local authorities from being vulnerable to challenge by the lap-dancing industry, which is quite a strong advocate. Furthermore, a sub-group
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of almost virtual lap-dancing clubs is growing, with businesses aiming to move their stable of women—a term used previously—from venue to venue. We really must not allow that to happen. We must protect local authorities from their vulnerability to this strong and powerful industry. The voluntary aspect governing the application of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 and the sexual encounter venue category will create an uneven licensing landscape, vulnerable to exploitation by the industry. Before the Licensing Act, uneven licensing between local authorities enabled lap-dancing clubs to exert pressure in favour of looser regulation. In 2002, for example, Westminster city council came under pressure to relax a no-nudity clause following the decision of a neighbouring borough council, Camden, to do so. Unfortunately, unless we can amend the new clause, that risk will be reintroduced.

It has been argued that universal reforms will impose a burden on local authorities, but closer examination of the actual process involved in implementation of the new clause reveals that that is simply not the case. Optional reforms will require local authorities to undergo eight procedures to install the controls that the new clause would introduce. However, if the reforms were applied universally, the process that each local authority would then undertake would be halved, and would require significantly fewer resources. We are talking about a low-cost procedure for local authorities, regardless of whether lap dancing clubs are involved.

8.30 pm

David Lepper: I believe that fees are set nationally under the Licensing Act, but under the usual regime the local authority can levy a charge for the application for a licence which covers the costs of the administration involved in consideration of that application. Would not universal reforms be cost-neutral?

Lynda Waltho: Indeed. I intend to say more about that later.

Optional reforms would reduce the burden on local authorities that chose to adopt the new controls. The increased costs of enforcing the new clause would arise when an application was made. However, the costs of the process would be absorbed by licensing fees, and incurred by lap-dancing club operators rather than local authorities. That contrasts with the current circumstances, in which local authorities are not guaranteed to recoup fees through the premises licensing costs. Local authorities with existing premises would likewise be able to retrieve the cost of requiring venues to apply for the new SEV licence. The new category would, in fact, create efficiency savings for authorities.

Many local authorities currently undertake enforcement work against premises licence-holders who have specified dancing on their licences but who are, in fact, hosting lap-dancing events. The new clause will reduce the amount of work required in that context by providing for adequate scrutiny and funding through the increased licensing fees. It should also provide a solution that delivers local flexibility. Universal application of the new category is consistent with that, allowing local authorities more discretion when it comes to licensing clubs. Sexual encounter venue licensing affords flexibility within application and renewal rates. The duration of licences and a wide range of other factors could be
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included. The localities in which the sexual encounter venues could be licensed are assigned by individual local authorities. The definition of a locality is also determined by local authorities, as are licensing conditions.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): At the beginning of her speech, the hon. Lady said that the arguments had been advanced before. That is in no small part down to her, and I congratulate her on the work that she has done. Does she agree that lap-dancing operators and their representatives ought to welcome a consistent approach across the country, which would enable them to know exactly how they will be treated because they would know that their establishments would be treated as sexual encounter establishments throughout the country?

Lynda Waltho: They ought to welcome it, but of course they do not, because they prefer an uneven mixture of provision enabling them to exploit loopholes. Their industry has a history of exploiting loopholes and gaining as a result, and I do not expect its approach to change.

In its current form, the Bill exempts premises that provide lap dancing less frequently than once a month from requiring a sex encounter venue licence. Removal of that exemption is crucial, because we need to prevent the growth of lap dancing sub-markets. The proposed exemption will exclude a large number of premises that hold lap-dancing nights provided by lap-dancing agencies that take bookings in a range of public houses, bars and hotel venues. That sub-market is likely to grow in the light of such an exemption, especially in the context of falling alcohol revenue during the economic recession.

That is demonstrated by the recent case of the White Hart lap-dancing application in Lewisham, in London. A landlord stated:

Mapping of the lap-dancing industry between May and November 2008 revealed that a new lap-dancing venue opened, on average, every week during that period. Half those openings were in public houses or bars which now provide specialist lap-dancing nights.

We can prevent additional burdens from being placed on local authorities. The frequency-based exemption will increase the workload of local authorities, which will face higher enforcement costs in order to ensure that venues do not host lap-dancing events more than 11 times a year. That will place further financial pressure on authorities that are struggling now to recoup existing licensing costs through low premises licence fees.

I believe that the new clauses and amendments will add to what the Government have already done. I note and welcome Government amendment 54, which attempts to address the possible abuse of the TEN system, but I do not believe that it is strong enough.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I entirely agree that the Bill is already having an effect. I offer as an example the fact that a major lap-dancing venue in west Kensington has withdrawn its appeal because it could see the writing on the wall. My hon. Friend is also right that temporary event notices are a way around regulation. The debate on this Bill has drawn attention to the fact that TENs in general—not just in relation to lap-dance clubs—represent a major loophole. Does my hon. Friend agree that it
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would be welcome if the Government were to issue a statement that the TEN system in general should be looked at so that local populations can challenge their use in the same way as they can challenge licences?

Lynda Waltho: Indeed. The Minister spoke earlier about possible Department for Culture, Media and Sport plans to give councillors a voice. That—a community voice—is what has been missing. If the TEN system is looked at across the board, we will get what I and many of my colleagues started out in politics to support: a voice for local people. That is what has been missing.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems with the TEN is that local councils are either reluctant to collect the evident to prosecute, or do not have the required staff to do so, and so encourage breaches, which local people do not want? Local people do not understand why the Government are not taking stronger action.

Lynda Waltho: That is absolutely the case.

In conclusion, I believe that the removal of the frequency-based exemption and universal application are crucial to ensure that these welcome reforms to lap-dancing club licensing deliver real and robust change, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to revisit the area covered by the amendments, if not here then in another place.

Mr. Gummer: Because of the way in which the House works, I am the only Member representing the Ipswich area who is able to refer to the terrible situation that arose there, and on which this Bill importantly bears.

Before I do so, I would like to say that I agree with the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) about the licensing of the occasional venue; it certainly will be misused, and I hope the Government will resile from that. I do not, however, agree with the hon. Lady’s comments about local authorities. They must have as much freedom as possible to decide whether they wish to use these provisions. I would just say to her that different parts of the country are very different, and it is perfectly reasonable for a local community to decide, through its local authority, that it does not need to have this kind of operation; it should be allowed to do that.

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