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House of Commons
Session 2008 - 09
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General Committee Debates
Policing and Crime

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Hugh Bayley, Sir Nicholas Winterton
Austin, Mr. Ian (Dudley, North) (Lab)
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
Brokenshire, James (Hornchurch) (Con)
Burns, Mr. Simon (West Chelmsford) (Con)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing)
Dorries, Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Fitzpatrick, Jim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Holmes, Paul (Chesterfield) (LD)
Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
Ruffley, Mr. David (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Chris Shaw, Andrew Kennon, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 10 February 2009


[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

Policing and Crime Bill

Clause 13

Paying for sexual services of a controlled prostitute: England and Wales
10.30 am
Question (5 February) again proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. Have you received a communication from the Government or any other representations about new clauses to be added to the Bill? Last Thursday, the Home Secretary announced that she would introduce new provisions about gang injunctions. That would be a significant addition to the Bill and, as we are halfway through our proceedings in Committee and have limited time left to discuss new clauses and existing clauses, we are obviously worried about whether we will have enough time to debate what seems to be a significant, new addition to the Bill that requires detailed scrutiny and examination. I am therefore interested to know whether you have received representations or any news about the matter.
The Chairman: I have not received any representations, but I would not expect to do so. The rule is that the Committee can consider amendments or that I can call them only if they are tabled three sitting days before our proceedings. Does the Minister wish to comment?
The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I shall take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point of order and consider whether we can take the appropriate action.
The Chairman: That will help the Committee.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. I wish to ask two things. First, will it be possible for the Committee to be told first, or at least at the same time as others, when we will be debating the measure, as that is only polite. Secondly, I raised with the Deputy Leader of the House the matter of whether there would be adequate time for scrutiny of Bills such as the one under discussion both in Committee and on Report. He said that the Government would do their utmost to ensure that the only new clauses tabled on Report would be responses to the Committee and not extra chunks to be added to the Bill. Sometimes the Government have to do what they have to do, but I hope that the message is understood that we need adequate time on Report to discuss such matters, especially when new clauses are tabled late in Committee.
The Chairman: That point of order was clearly a message for the Minister, not the Chair.
Mr. Coaker: The new provision to which the hon. Member for Hornchurch referred related to gangs, and the Government intend to table such a new clause for discussion in Committee, not on Report. It is the Government’s intention—it is certainly mine—to ensure that, as far as possible, we adhere to the commitment that the Home Secretary and I gave on the Floor of the House and here in Committee that we will have adequate time to discuss the various measures in the Bill and that we will have sufficient time to prepare for them.
The Chairman: That was useful. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon and for Hornchurch for raising those points of order, and to the Minister for informing us of his intentions.
Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I decided on Thursday to contribute to discussions on the clause. I listened carefully and necessarily patiently to the detailed argument made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, but I thought that we were in danger of omitting from the debate—except for a passing reference to it when we reached clause stand part—the policy objective behind the clause.
I acknowledge that much of the discussion on Thursday afternoon was helpful in identifying ways in which the Bill can be improved, but I consider that those who were arguing for greater evidence to back up the basic approach of the Bill seemed to be quite happy to assert that the Bill was completely wrong, that it would be counter-productive and that there was no point in reducing demand for trafficked women who are prostitutes, without giving any evidence themselves to back up their assertions. I therefore want to spend a minute or two looking at the policy focus.
I admit that when I first discovered the Government’s approach I too was a little sceptical, but once I read the Home Office publication, “Tackling the Demand for Prostitution: A Review”, in November 2008—a very useful document that contains much of the evidence that the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon thought was missing—it helps our understanding of the Government’s position. It is very clear from information already in the public domain that almost every approach to reduce prostitution has weaknesses. However, on the evidence available it is reasonable to attempt to reduce demand for prostitution by operating a strict liability rule that will hopefully dampen demand, and in particular—I will say more about this in a minute—make men think very seriously about the nature of the prostitution services that they are buying.
Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Will the hon. Lady explain how the information will be imparted to men who pay for sexual services? Will there be a national advertising campaign to let men know that they are subject to strict liability when they use the services of a prostitute? If there is to be a campaign, that funding would be better channelled elsewhere. Men do not know what the law is now when they pay for sexual services, and I do not believe that they will know should the Bill be enacted.
Dr. Blackman-Woods: If the hon. Lady had been here for the extensive debate that we had on the clause on Thursday, she would have known that that matter was dealt with by the Minister.
Dr. Harris: The hon. Lady would accept that I was here last Thursday. She talks about the evidence in the Home Office review, but the academic evidence—if something is published and peer-reviewed it is evidence, otherwise it is opinion, which is valuable but different from evidence—is not in the Home Office review. In so far as it exists, there is a review of that academic evidence that has not even been published yet, let alone at the time the review was published, so would the hon. Lady accept that in strict terms the evidence is not there on either side in the Home Office review?
Dr. Blackman-Woods: I thought the hon. Gentleman might make that point. A great deal of the academic evidence is referred to in the report. My point is that it explains to some extent the logic behind the Government’s thinking on why they opted for reducing the demand for the prostitution services of a woman who had been trafficked.
If we are serious about reducing demand, it is essential to make the purchasers of prostitution services responsible for their actions. The critical point is vigilance and circumspection about the women who are involved. The best way for purchasers of ensuring that they do not fall foul of the legislation is to either not use the services of prostitutes, or to significantly reduce that risk by being very careful, and perhaps using prostitutes who are in a collective or another setting where women are clearly not being controlled for gain, and where some aspects of women’s safety can be guaranteed.
This deals very effectively with the criticism from the English Collective of Prostitutes. Useful criticisms were raised on its behalf by the GMB, but the union and the English collective have taken their eye off the policy direction in the clause, which is to try to reduce the number of women who are either trafficked into this country for prostitution or are forced into prostitution and controlled for gain.
The Bill will not further criminalise prostitutes, but it will criminalise the men who buy services from prostitutes who are controlled for gain—we took our eye off that particular policy focus on Thursday. It therefore is essential that we keep the strict liability clause, because if we start to alter it, we give men a number of possible defences—I am not suggesting for a minute that people should not be able to defend their actions, but we do not want to make it too complicated, have too many possible defences, or be too mealy-mouthed about it, because otherwise, the policy objective will simply be lost. The clause and the direction of the Bill can work only if we keep our eye on strict liability, because it is by making men very careful, responsible and circumspect about who they are buying services from that we will achieve reduction in demand for the services of women who are controlled for gain.
Nadine Dorries: On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. We have been a well-mannered and polite Committee up until this point, but I am afraid that I feel obliged to put on the record the reasons for my absence on Thursday, as they were pointed out in such an ill-mannered way by the hon. Member for City of Durham.
The Chairman: That is not a point for debate. The hon. Lady can contribute to the debate, but she cannot make that a point of order.
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): As we have heard, both in the debate on Tuesday and this morning, there are major concerns about the general intent of the clause. Many people believe that the introduction of a strict liability offence, together with the issue of controlling someone for gain, threatens to make the situation for sex workers in this country much worse, rather than better, even though the intention of the Bill is to improve the situation. Most people who are connected with the issue out on the street feel that, whatever the intention of the Bill, it will make matters worse.
I want to go into some detail on that. To put it on the record, I know that the language used in the Bill is gender neutral, and that the intention is not to talk purely about women as sex workers who are used by men as punters or customers. None the less, throughout the entire debate on Second Reading, and so far in Committee, the only terms that have been used throughout concern women being exploited by men—women as sex workers, men as customers.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell) indicated assent.
Paul Holmes: The Minister is nodding. I know that it is the intention of the Bill, but I still want to put on record the fact that the Bill is designed to talk about all sex workers, whether or not they are exploited by any customer. Although the largest category is women being used by men, there is a fairly large category of men who sell their services to other men, and also a much smaller, but none the less existing category of men who sell services to women. I want to put on the record the fact that the Bill is intended to apply to all sex workers and customers, not exclusively to women who are used by men.
One of the points on strict liability, which has already been rehearsed, is that it may simply be unenforceable. In that case, it would be another example of a headline, grandstanding pursuit, rather than an effort to introduce measures that work in practice. We discussed a little on Second Reading—and during the evidence sessions—the fact that the policy is based on the experience in Finland, the only country in the world that has gone down the route of introducing a strict liability crime for the customers of sex workers. As far as we understand it, the example in Finland, after two to three years, is that either nobody has been prosecuted at all, or that a few prosecutions have taken place in very recent months, but we do not know with what degree of success. Considering the research done by the Government, including visits to a number of countries with different approaches, that does not seem a good argument for adopting a the strict liability approach that has caused so much concern to so many of the people involved.
Dr. Harris: In a sense I am answering the intervention of the hon. Member for City of Durham, who asked about what the evidence is on either side. The Government are introducing a strict liability test, which might make matters worse and criminalise thousands of people. Is the onus not on the Government to provide the evidence of effectiveness, rather on than on the Opposition to prove that it does not work, given that such a test has hardly been tried anywhere?
10.45 am
Paul Holmes: Absolutely. The same issue, which has been discussed a little in Committee and on Second Reading, arises with respect to the evidence for how bad the problem of sex trafficking is, for example. Likewise, the issue arises with regard to how many women are involved in prostitution—I apologise, I meant sex workers in general, including men—purely to pay for a drug habit, rather than for other reasons. The evidence in both cases, it has been argued, is quite flimsy. Certainly the figures put forward for the percentage of sex workers who are trafficked have been demolished by lots of the evidence submitted to the Committee, suggesting that the figures are grossly exaggerated.
I do not underestimate the problem. About seven years ago, a year after I was first elected, I went on a visit with UNICEF to Thailand and Laos to look at the issue of trafficked sex workers and, indeed, that of industrial slaves in some Thai factories. Children mainly came from Laos to Thailand to become sex workers, but some of them travelled on to the UK. For example, in Operation Pentameter, the biggest single category of people who were discovered as trafficked sex workers—certainly in the top six categories—came from Thailand. Some other Members of Parliament and I looked at that seven years ago with UNICEF, so I certainly understand the problem, but a lot of evidence has been submitted to the Committee to suggest that there is considerable exaggeration about the percentage of sex workers who are trafficked women.
We have heard the arguments. While it may be true in London that there is a higher proportion of foreign sex workers—that does not necessarily mean that they are trafficked forcibly, or controlled against their will—that may not be the case elsewhere. I went with the BBC to do a programme on a project in Derby that works with sex workers on the street, offering support. That organisation said it had never once come across a trafficked sex worker in Derby, for example. We have heard other evidence for that case from other parts of the country.
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©Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 11 February 2009