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The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells: My Lords, I speak as chairman of the Children's Society, much of whose work is reflected in the case now being put forward. In support of the amendment, I should say that we have a growing concern about child prostitution. As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has said, the evidence gained from projects is distressing indeed. One reads case histories of young women and girls who sometimes

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almost from the beginning of their lives enter a downward spiral and end up in prostitution. I have visited projects, including homeless projects, where one often meets youngsters who are totally exposed to these kinds of situations on the streets.

Much of this prostitution derives from the flight from what is impossible, whether that is from residential homes or from abuse in the family home from a parent or other people in that home. Many young people who have found themselves homeless and unprotected have offered sexual favours to pay for a home and what they perceive as security, but they enter a form of entrapment and imprisonment. It may be said that this amendment could undermine the didactic function of the law, but for those who are above the age of childhood the law is clear. We are trying to press home the fact that children need to be considered in a different way. So often in these cases prosecutions focus on the children who have become prostitutes rather than on those who have abused them or who continue to abuse them. We believe that the prostitution of children is in many ways a form of child abuse and should be dealt with as such. I do not believe that if we change the attitude towards children who are prostitutes, that will undermine the seriousness of prostitution as a crime.

It is important to ask whether the law as it now stands achieves its objectives. So far it has not done so. Children still hear the voice of the man who promises to protect them and feel the pain of homelessness. Often they have lived with violence from childhood and that has made them flee into society. They find that experience infinitely more powerful an influence on what they decide to do than what the law may say. We believe that this amendment preserves the recognition of the wrongness of prostitution but at the same time recognises that children are enormously at risk in this area. We have learnt from our projects that we can help them emerge from this provided that they have not been criminalised. By being present and gaining their trust and by offering a place of security that is not bound to prostitution, we can help children rebuild their lives.

As regards the question of age, I believe that in this Bill the age of responsibility is shifting or becoming less clear. Our understanding is that under 18 would be a reasonable age for this purpose. I follow a Lord who regarded the misuse of power over someone who commits adultery in the following way; namely, you say to the person who has committed the sin, "Go and sin no more" but you recognise that the hypocrisy, blame and misuse lie elsewhere and should be pursued as such by the law.

Lord Meston: My Lords, I speak in support of this amendment. I speak with the experience of someone who has had many dealings with local authority care proceedings. It is a sad fact that children who are notionally in local authority care and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said, have already been abused, are particularly vulnerable to organised prostitution and pimps. In my view the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was absolutely right to say that cautioning is

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simply not enough. There is much to be said for now using the machinery of the Children Act to deal with this problem.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, on raising this important issue. Child prostitution is a serious problem in our society and one which I regret to say is getting worse. It seems to me that the objects of this amendment are threefold; namely, to decriminalise prostitution for the under-18s; to provide for child prostitutes to be taken into care or rehabilitation; and to increase the penalties for pimping. It seems to me that of those three objectives the last two are the most important; namely, to get child prostitutes into care and rehabilitation, and to ensure that pimps are properly dealt with by the law. In that context I cannot see why they should not be treated simply as child sex offenders.

I see the difficulties of taking into care girls between the ages of 16 and 18 who are consenting to prostitution, or perhaps even initiating the process and are not in the clutches of pimps. I have one further point to make. It is not only girls who are in the clutches of pimps who are prostitutes today. Many teenage girls and, I regret to say, many lone mothers are prostitutes because they have simply run out of money and they see no other possible way of making ends meet. That is an underlying problem that we should also consider in this context. I do not think the amendment is perfect but if the noble Lord were to press it I would certainly support it.

Baroness David: My Lords, I support this amendment. We had a session of the all-party children group to discuss child prostitution. There were spokesmen from Barnardos, the NSPCC and, I believe, the Children's Society. A great many of us present at that meeting were shocked to hear of the extent of the problem. Pimps pick up these children and make them fall in love with them. Then the young children will not give evidence against these men. The children may be kept in the most horrible circumstances shut up in a room for weeks on end. As has been said, these children have probably already been abused or have run away from home. The situation is bad. Whatever we can do to help to get these children into welfare would be a good thing.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I rise only to express one concern about this amendment--the spirit of which I accept--and that is concern about the proposed new subsection (2) which states,

    "It shall be an offence for a woman who has attained the age of 18 to loiter or solicit in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution".

Like the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, I have some concerns about that age of 18 and wonder whether 16 might be more appropriate, particularly as the Children Act would apply to those below whatever age one put in place. If one puts possibly very street-wise 16 and 17 year-olds into care with younger children that could pose considerable dangers. For that reason I do

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not wish to support the amendment as it is but I certainly think that it deserves considerable thought from the Government. I look forward to hearing what they have to say.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend's amendment. I think it needs more than thought; it needs action from the Government. Why have the pimps got away with it for so long, because they do horrific things to children? I believe it was the Barnardos report which gave an example of young children running away from care in Leeds and being used as prostitutes in Bradford. As the noble Baroness, Lady David, said, they were locked up and tortured, so they were frightened and did not give away the pimps. Some action is needed here. I include boys. It is an international issue. Boy prostitution is on the increase as well as girl prostitution. Many men will say, "The younger the better".

6 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I declare a former interest. Until the election I was a trustee of the NSPCC and therefore over the years I have been aware of some of the problems identified tonight.

As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, pointed out, there is a threefold consequence from the amendment: decriminalising soliciting for prostitution in the streets for girls under the age of 18; enabling emergency protection orders to be obtained for a child found soliciting; and an increase in the penalty for procuring a girl under 21 from two years to four years.

I entirely agree that it is terrible for any child, boy or girl, to be involved in prostitution. It is our view that there is no doubt that a child involved in prostitution, as my noble friend Lady Kennedy said, is primarily the victim of coercion or abuse and not a consenting participant. Indeed, a girl under 16 cannot consent in law to sexual intercourse, so those who have sexual intercourse with girls under 16 are already committing an offence. We are seriously concerned that to decriminalise child prostitution would increase the numbers of child prostitutes on the streets.

The Children Act 1989 already requires all agencies to make the protection of children at risk of harm a paramount consideration. The police are aware of the problem, an awareness due in no small measure to the efforts of the children's charities to which, among others, the right reverend Prelate referred. We entirely agree that children in prostitution should be treated as victims in need of welfare. I reiterate the point made by my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. Between the police, children's charities and others, there has been development of guidelines about how one deals with children in this age group and in this dreadful situation. They are now treated as victims in need of welfare. The guidelines were piloted, I think it is well known, in Wolverhampton and Nottingham. They are being adopted throughout the West Midlands and in other forces. The ACPO spokesman on prostitution issues has confirmed his opposition to any decriminalisation because of the risk that that would lead to an increase in the number of child prostitutes.

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I do not take nitpicking points but it is right, as the noble Lord indicated, that his amendment deals only with girls, not boys. It would mean that those over 18 who solicited for sexual purposes would be guilty of a criminal offence. We have serious worries, which I put as soberly as I can, that this will create a new market--I am sorry to use that word; but that is what it is--in 16 and 17 year-olds who could legally solicit. There is a serious risk that it will put more not fewer girls at risk from pimps and exploitation.

My noble friend Lady David, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, asked why pimps are so rarely successfully prosecuted. In quite a lot of experience of the criminal law I think that I only came across two cases. I believe that the reason is the difficulty of proof for the reasons specified by both noble Baronesses.

It is unfortunate--I have to put it brutally again--that on the advice we have the pressure for younger prostitutes is now increasing. I am sorry to say this but it is partly a function of fashion and partly because of the development of AIDS among older prostitutes. The description I give is not a happy one, but I have to put it before your Lordships, in case we pass an amendment to a law which has consequences entirely opposite to those we want.

There is no doubt that these young girls are victims; that the efforts of the police should be to get girls out of prostitution. But we do not want in any way to indicate that prostitution or soliciting for prostitution by young girls under 18 is not to be unlawful. We think that we should work with the police and other agencies along the lines undertaken at present to see whether we can deal more effectively with the problem.

The Children Act already provides for protection orders for children at risk of prostitution. If a child is at risk or is in commercial sexual exploitation, he or she would be at risk of significant harm, and that is the ground already for the protection order under the Children Act. So the opportunity is there.

There is then the question of the increase in the penalty for the offence from two years to four years. Unfortunately, as I think we all agree and recognise rather gloomily, pimps are rarely successfully prosecuted. We need to look carefully at the overall context of the Bill. We want to deal with children as soon as may be who are at risk of harm or have been harmed. We want to see how reprimands and final warnings will work. It is an issue which needs to be urgently addressed. At present we are looking at the way in which police should deal with young prostitutes when the Bill becomes law. We are discussing it with ACPO. There is no doubt that new guidance is needed. The present circulars were issued immediately after the Street Offences Act 1959 and are thoroughly out of date.

I sympathise with the purpose of the amendment. It is a worthy purpose. We are deeply troubled that if we decriminalise this activity we shall be creating a new market. We believe that the way ahead is to develop the present pilot schemes we have, to which I referred, to make sure that full use is made of the opportunities under the provisions of the Children Act. We believe that we need to look at penalties in terms of sexual

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exploitation so that we have a coherent regime rather than picking out one sentence from legislation. The noble Lord proposes an increase from two years to four years in the case of procuring a young woman for sexual intercourse when she is under the age of 21 years.

I am sorry if my conclusion is disappointing. But at least if noble Lords do not agree with the reasoning, I hope that they will accept it to be a legitimate view. I know that I am alone in resisting this. But I should be deeply troubled if we were to amend the law to provide that girls under 18 could solicit for prostitution without the ultimate legal sanction. Many people who prey on young girls will think, "Choose them under 18".

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