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I turn now to what for me is the most important part of the Bill. I agreed very much with the comments of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who put the point very clearly. It is difficult for those of us who have a strong view about the nature of prostitution to speak in a way that is wholly acceptable to those for whom that view seems too harsh, or, indeed, too old-fashioned. I just think that the exploitation of human beings is at the heart of evil. There is little that one can say about it except that it is deeply offensive to the nature of human beings. To exploit the vulnerableand particularly, if I may say so, those who are vulnerable because they are womenis offensive in a way that practically nothing else is. Therefore, we ought to talk about this subject very seriously, and I want to congratulate the Government on the delicacy of the manner in which they have sought to find an answer that helps us to move away from the old arguments. We have gone
through a period when it was thought so improper for personal sexual activities to be affected by the law that we could not get beyond that and see how sometimes the human rights bit is about the exploited person and not about my human rights to follow to the nth degree any desire I might have. It is, I fear, 40 years since I wrote a book on this subject. In considering whether one might bring it up to date, I must say that I am appalled how right I was in some prognostications of what would arise from the perfectly reasonable liberal attitudes that made people think that we ought not to be as judgmental as historical societies had been. I join those who hold the view that the problem is that the pendulum has moved to a degree whereby it is difficult to discuss this subject without being thought to be censorious.
I wish to say simply that I hope the Government will move a little further, because it is very necessary to take on board what the hon. Member for Slough said. Our definition of trafficking must not be limited to the horrible but obvious business of collecting womenit is not always women, but it is in generalfrom poor and depressed communities in one part of the world and moving them to another part of the world where people have the money to indulge themselves in this way.
I must tell my own Front-Bench team that I thought it unacceptable to try to move away from having strict liability, because that is crucial; if someone wishes to pay for sex, they must recognise that in doing so they take on a particular burden. If they think that what they are doing is reasonable, they must recognise that the downside is with them and not with the woman concerned. I am sorry that our team has moved from the position that I thought it had takenone of understanding that the libertarian position means being concerned about the woman in these circumstancesso I hope that it will move from the position it has taken.
One other issue must be raised very clearly. I have gone through the experience of those terrible few weeks in Ipswich when the bodies of a number of women were deposited in some of the most beautiful parts of my constituency. One must remember the circumstances of those girls, who had but a short period before been the light of the families who bore them. I wish to make that point, because we are not necessarily talking about girls who come from some appalling background and who are forced into this situation; we are talking about girls who, for one reason or another, find themselves believing that there is no other way in which they can pay for thingsin this case, we are talking almost universally about drug habits. I cannot see that such a situation is any less exploitative than one where somebody is standing behind them with a knife, one where they know that they will be beaten up or one where they have been threatened that they will be deported. This situation is just as exploitative, and the suppliers of the drugs know perfectly well where the money is coming from. I do not see that one can make so clear a distinction between these things.
I come to the conclusion that it is better to move further towards the position that the hon. Member for Slough described so well, simply because we have to find a way in which the source of the money is restricted. This is a matter of trying to ensure that those who make this kind of prostitution successful enough to pay for the drugs or successful enough for the people to engage in trafficking find it more and more difficult.
Is it not reasonable in a civilised society to say to people whose very act of paying for sex is exploitative, at least to some extentto use the words of the hon. Member for SloughCave emptor. You have to make the decision, and the responsibility is with you? Yes, it is true that we probably would not do this in almost any other circumstance in a free society, but we are not talking about any other circumstance. We are talking about the exploitation of one human being by another.
I am going to avoid any moralism, but I cannot escape the fact that all civilisations have understood that the central point about the difference between good and evil is that good is never exploitative; it is always free and it is always about individual, personal choices, whereas evil is always about exploiting someone else for ones own gain. If that is the case, I do not think that the strict liability test is a bad thing. I would move much further towards the position held by the hon. Member for Slough.
John McDonnell: May I just say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is no way to run a country, is it? We have had two hours of debate on amendments and about 15 more amendments will not even be discussed. We are talking about the prospect of legislation that will put prostitutes lives at risk and will allow people to be arrested, detained and deprived of their liberty. We have had two hours, and that is all. I say to the Government that we cannot go on like this with criminal justice legislation.
We also cannot legislate on the basis of such lack of knowledge. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), I have tabled questions just to try to get some information. We asked the Government how many prostitutes there are in the country, and about their ages, sexes and basic circumstances, and we were told that information was not available. We then found that 80,000 was the figure used in one of the reportsone reference mentioned that a vast proportion were trafficked. We asked how many were trafficked and the Government estimate that came back was 4,000. I asked about incidents of violence in relation to prostitution, and was told that the information was not held centrally. I asked for information about prosecutions concerning brothels, and was told that information was not held centrally. We not only do not give ourselves the time to discuss legislation, but we legislate in absolute ignorance of the facts of what is happening on the ground.
Let me very briefly address the amendments tabled in my name, and particularly new clause 37. I would welcome a Division on that new clause, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I accept that we might have to make choices between new clause 4 and new clause 37. If there has to be a priority, I would support a Division on new clause 4, because it relates to children.
A number of us have tried as best we can to get as much information on the subject as possible. I pay tribute to the English Collective of Prostitutes, which has brought together the Safety First coalition. I have met a number of representatives of the constituency of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), and particularly from Ipswich. I have met the GMB sex workers branch; the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, the religious group; Imperial College, which has carried out research; the Royal College of Nursing; the Womens Institute,
which got involved in these discussions; the National Association of Probation Officers; and Women Against Rape. They have tried to raise at least some awareness and consciousness of what prostitution is like in this country. My amendments are based on that information and on the level of understanding that many of us have gained.
I have met sex workers in this countrymen and womenwho are sex workers by choice. They feel that there is no reason why they should be penalised for offering what they believe is a service to other human beings. They do not believe that that relationship is exploitative. Like others, I find that difficult to accept, but we have met those people and discussed their role with them.
John McDonnell: What came across from all the information we have gleaned, and from the Governments strategy discussions in the early stages, is that there are women and men who undertake such work from choice, but most othersthe vast majoritydo not. They are there because of push factors such as poverty and drug dependency, and they often have mental health problems or other background problems. They need assistance to get off the game, as they say. The one message that comes across loud and clear is that anything that criminalises their actions in any way undermines their ability to leave those occupations voluntarily.
Fiona Mactaggart: Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the most effective exit projects in London, based at Toynbee hall, supports the new orders for prostitutes? Those workers with drug-dependent prostitutes say that often there are co-dependency issues that can be dealt with only if the prostitutes are brought to diversion projects by the court.
John McDonnell: We all bring anecdotal evidence. I have been convening Safety First Coalition meetings for more than three years and I have met a group of people who work with prostitutes in such centres and I have to tell my hon. Friend that a vast proportion of them oppose any measures that would introduce criminality in the system, because engagement with the legal system is such a deterrent.
Lynne Jones: To counter the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), on Friday I was at a meeting of people involved in a project in Balsall Heath on the boundary of my constituency. The people in that group are very much of the view that it is so important to build up trust with the people they are trying to help that they do not think a coercive and punitive approach would achieve that.
John McDonnell: In fact, in the consultations the Government undertook, the view expressed time and again in various representations was that punitive measures actually make matters worse. It did not help that the Government did not publish the 67 responses to their consultationa vast proportion of which opposed their proposals on criminalisation. As we learned from Ipswich, the overall priority is the need for safety. Anything that undermines the safety of sex workers should be avoided.
On new clause 4, I endorse the assertion made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) that we are talking about children who are victims. Almost every childrens agency with which we have had discussions has said that we need to ensure that there is decriminalisation. Anything that increases the stigma for children and prevents them from coming forward will undermine their ability to seek protection and security.
Turning to new clauses 37 and 38, we have to recognise that women work together in brothels for safety reasons. My new clause would simply bring into legislation what Ministers were arguing for only a few years ago: a recognition that where two women come together, with a maid or madamhowever we describe herthey should not be prosecuted under legislation relating to brothels. When we undertook our consultation, the English Collective of Prostitutes provided their analysis showing that it is 10 times safer for women to work in a brothel than to work on the street. As was mentioned earlier, small brothels often involve people working co-operatively to ensure their safety.
In 2005, when my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) was a Home Office Minister, she announced that two women should be able to work together from premises, yet that idea has been dropped and we are now introducing relatively punitive measures. In 2006, the Home Office acknowledged thatI quote from an article in The Times
the present definition of brothel ran counter to advice that, in the interests of safety, women should not sell sex alone.
In recent months, the RCN has also debated the fact that nurses and health workers who work with sex workers are fearful for the safety of women who work on the street and are urging the Government to reconsider. At that time, the Government and others were considering four women working together. I am willing to accept a compromise of two women if that would increase their safety. The reality of the sex trade in this country is that women are working together to provide one another with safety and security.
Mention has been made of New Zealand, where a law makes a distinction between small, collectively run brothels of up to four people working together and larger brothels, which must be licensed. All the reports from New Zealand have said that the new legislation has increased the safety and security of women by enabling them to work together in that way.
Some of the information that we have managed to glean suggests that prosecutions for keeping a brothel used for prostitution have been increasing. In 2004, there were only three such prosecutions; in 2007the latest figures that we could extractthere were 41. So the increasing pressure that is being put on women working together in brothels is forcing women on to the streets and into insecure and unsafe conditions.
One of the reasons why police harassment of brothels and sex workers has increased is, unfortunately, the incentive provided by the proceeds of crime legislation, whereby 25 per cent. of any assets confiscated during a raid on a brothel goes towards the police, 25 per cent. goes towards the Crown Prosecution Service and the Inland Revenue takes the rest. That is almost like the
Government and the police living off immoral earnings. No wonder that there is an incentive to increase the number of raids on brothels.
What we are asking for in the new clause is simply a recognition of the reality that women will continue to work in the sex trade. If they do, they should be kept as safe as possible, and one way of doing so is to enable them to work in small numbers in brothels, where they can work co-operatively and therefore avoid the threat of being out on the street.
There are further amendments in my name. The Government are trying to introduce legislation whereby someone who is found in the same place twice in three months can be prosecuted for loitering or soliciting. I do not believe that something that happens twice in three months can be construed as persistent behaviour. We should reduce the period, and in amendment 6, I suggest using the phrase twice in one weekotherwise, we will draw more people into the criminal prosecution process, and they will therefore be more unsafe if they work in that way.
In amendment 7, I refer back to the debate that we had on previous legislation when a system of penalties was introduced whereby a person goes before a court, is given an order and placed before a supervisor. In all the discussions that we have had with NAPOthe trade union that represents the supervisors, given that the Government inform us that they will be appointed by the probation serviceit has told us that the resources and trained staff are not available. In fact, the probation service is being cut back at the moment, as we learned from a seminar today. Therefore, the staffing is not available.
If such people, who lead extremely chaotic lives, do not attend a series of three interviews, they will be placed back before the courts. We are told today that that will be done as soon as practicable. We have been given such assurances on other new laws and crimes, and the phrase as soon as practicable can mean that someone is detained at least overnight. Our fear is that someone could be detained for up to 72 hours. That would have a devastating effect not only on individuals, but on their families. Many of them have children who need to be cared for. Therefore, my view is that that provision will render itself unworkable, while having a deleterious impact on the women themselves and on their families. It will be a way to intimidate women even further and undermine their ability to get off the game.
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): In the 30 seconds left, may I sound a positive note? I welcome new clause 22, which supersedes what I have been trying to do for many years, namely increase the penalty for encryption of child abuse pornography that is tucked away in data, and failure to give the key. I used the example of an individual who had 150 gigabytes of encrypted material. There were four years of attempts to break the encryption, but the attempts failed. The gentleman concerned has just been sentenced, and the best that could be managed for him was a community order for three years. That happened about four days ago. In that example, the judge tried to turn the matter to get the best result.
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