HC Deb 17 July 1957 vol 573 cc1301-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

11.19 p.m.

Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)

After the excitement which has been experienced by the House since seven o'clock this evening, I am sure the hon. Members will not begrudge me the opportunity of adding a little more.

I wish to refer to the situation which has developed over recent years in connection with prostitution in Stepney. I think that most hon. Members are fully aware of what is taking place in that part of London, particularly as it has received so much publicity in the Press. I am sure even the Home Office would like an opportunity of being able to explain what it has been doing about this matter, since it has become one of extreme seriousness.

The Stepney constituency is a residential area. It has docks and traders' shops, and so on, but the complaint of my constituents arises in the part of the borough where the London County Council has built new blocks of flats since the war, and where, obviously, young children are accommodated. There are business people in that area, too, who are greatly perturbed at the increase of vice in the area. It is the Commercial Road area to which I am referring.

Before the last war vice was hardly known at all in this area. Now we find that the ladies living in the new estates built by the London County Council and by Stepney Borough Council, and the children who are living there, are afraid to go about in the area because of the effects of, and the people connected with, vice. There must be some cause for this situation to be such as it is today, and so different from what it was before the last World War. I suggest that cause No. 1, unfortunately, was the war. Cause No. 2 was that as a result of the war quite a large number of our colonial friends managed to find accommodation there, in places which may have been evacuated, which may have been bomb damaged. They have now become what one may call permanent residents, and have decided that one of the best ways to get a living is by the opening of cafés.

One of the main troubles in this afflicted area is the large number of cafés we have there, owned, or at least rented, mainly by Maltese people, though some are owned or rented by other colonials; and the further fact that the people who rent these cafés do not believe in working just the ordinary café times but have these cafés open for 24 hours a day—day and night. Because of the large increase in these cafés there has been a correspondingly large increase in the number of people who, coming from various other parts of London or even other parts of the country, make use of the cafés.

Another reason for the trouble has to do with club laws. In the area a large number of clubs have been opened which have nothing to do with the ordinary Englishman's idea of a club, a place with a social atmosphere where families can enjoy a pleasant evening. They have been established wholly and solely to obtain special hours for drinking when ordinary licensed premises are closed—they charge exorbitant prices—and to give prostitutes the opportunity to meet all sorts of people whom they desire to meet at all times of the day. That is the situation today, and, as I say, it is completely different from what it was in 1939.

We may ask who is to blame for the changed circumstances. In Stepney itself, which has a population of about 67,000, it is being said that the police are not doing their job because they allow the prostitutes to stand about the streets and permit brothels to be established in old properties sold by British landlords to colonials and others. It is also said that the Stepney Borough Council and the London County Council are not doing their job. In my opinion, in the circumstances the police in Stepney have one of the hardest jobs in London, and they are doing their job as well as it is possible for men and women to do it within the law.

This sort of thing becomes political in a Metropolitan borough. The Communist Party in Stepney and some people who describe themselves as Labour Independents want to attack the Labour Party in Stepney and are saying that the Labour-controlled Stepney Borough Council is responsible. I would point out to the representative of the Home Office—and I would ask him to support me in this—that the Stepney Borough Council has no power to control prostitutes in the street except by reporting cases to the police.

The Council has no power whatever to control anybody who wants to open a café, whether he is a Maltese, a colonial or any other nationality. It has no power whatever over the hours that these places are open or the people who use them. Nor has the London County Council any power over the issue of what might be described as registration certificates to all-night cafés. My information is that the only body in London which has the authority to register an all-night café is the London County Council, but that registration is automatic.

If a person with such a registration commits two serious offences, it is left to the courts to decide whether the registration shall continue. Everybody knows that what happens in this type of atmosphere is that if someone is facing a second charge, the registration of the café is transferred to somebody else the day before the second conviction is recorded.

Who is responsible in this state of affairs? I have said that the Stepney Borough Council and London County Council are not responsible and that the police are doing all they can. The Home Secretary has suggested that it is the public on whom the authorities rely. But the Home Secretary and the Home Office should realise that when members of the public are sufficiently courageous to give evidence about vice, they have to attend the magistrates' court and disclose their names and address. They are deterred from giving information which would assist the police because their names and addresses are mentioned and often because they are people earning low wages, who cannot afford to lose one or two days' pay.

I want now to deal with what I consider to be the crux of the problem, not only in Stepney but in the whole country. Vice is not confined to Stepney. It is to be found in all the big towns. That has been the case for the last fifty years or so. What worries my constituents is that Stepney has more than its fair share of vice. What worries me is that the Home Office is just as "dead" in dealing with this problem today as it was fifty years ago.

If there is any Department which I blame for the increase in prostitution in Stepney, or in any other part of the country, it is the Home Department. For years the Home Office has had everything behind it. Whatever party may have been in power, the Home Office has had the power to put through legislation. What has been done? Only a couple of weeks ago the present Home Secretary was asked to take some action against Maltese convicted of living on the immoral earnings of women. Of the 35 people convicted at the Thames Magistrates' Court of living on the immoral earnings of British women, 28 were Maltese. I am not sure of the percentage, but it amounts to about 70 or 80 per cent.

The Home Secretary shrugged his shoulders. If that happened in Saffron Walden, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would wake himself up a bit. But because it is happening in Stepney, what does he say? That he is not prepared to depart from the long tradition in respect of the deportation of these British subjects. I was about to say these filthy so-called British subjects, because I do not care whether a man is born in this country, or Malta, or anywhere else in the world, if he lives on the body of a woman he is a filthy subject, and something should be done about it.

At the Thames Magistrates' Court, nine days after the Home Secretary had replied to the Question that was put to him, an Austrian woman, without a British passport, pleaded guilty to keeping a brothel in the Borough of Stepney. No doubt the magistrate had read the answer given by the Home Secretary and the result was that he fined this lady £15 for running a brothel in the East End of London, where there are women and young children who see these evil things taking place. I say that the Answer of the Home Secretary is an incitement to magistrates to let these people go almost scot-free. They earn £15 in an hour. What is the good of a £15 fine? What proposals has the Home Office to deal with this shocking state of affairs which has been going on in this country for the past fifty years? None at all.

The present Home Secretary's predecessor set up the Wolfenden Committee to deal with prostitution and homosexuality. I am told from a very unofficial source that the report on prostitution could have been presented to this House a long time ago, but that the Committee experienced difficulty in coming to a conclusion on homosexuality. Why did not the previous Home Secretary have the sense to tell the Committee to divide the two problems, because they are two separate problems? Had he done so, at least we might have been able to have some discussion and Government policy about this.

I hope that the Home Office will soon get a report from the Wolfenden Committee. It would give the Department an opportunity of doing something and not treating the Wolfenden Committee Report in the same way as it treated the Report of the Gowers Committee. We cannot rely on the Government; they set up committees and, when their reports are more or less favourable to what we on this side of the House think should be done, they turn them down.

I am afraid I have exhausted my time, but this is a matter on which one could speak for a long time. I conclude with the hope that the Home Office will take this matter much more seriously in future. It concerns not only Stepney, but the whole country.

11.41 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)

The matter which the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) has raised tonight is an aspect of a problem which has perplexed moralists and legislators for centuries. It is one which has to be faced in nearly all societies and many different attempts to find a solution have been made in different parts of the world.

This is hardly the occasion for an ethical or sociological disquisition, even if I were capable of making one. Indeed, I have not the time tonight to explain the whole of the criminal law on prostitution and offences connected with it, but I should like to make it clear that prostitution is not in itself an offence against the criminal law in this country; it is an activity which is reprehensible alike to the moralist and the sociologist, but it stands on that borderline between law and morals into which Parliament has not thought it wise for the criminal law to intrude too far.

It is, of course, shocking to see women parading the streets for the purpose of selling the use of their bodies and, as the hon. Member suggested, it is particularly disagreeable and disturbing that young people should see such a sight, but the police cannot take action unless an offence is committed, such as behaving indecently in public or obstructing the thoroughfares or, of course, solicitation. Even solicitation is not in itself an offence. The Statute governing the matter in London is Section 54 (11) of the Metropolitan Police Act, 1839, which provides that Every common prostitute or night walker loitering or being in any thoroughfare or public place for the purpose of prostitution or solicitation to the annoyance of the inhabitants or passengers is liable to a fine of forty shillings. The House will appreciate that it is necessary that there should be annoyance either of the people in the street or of the inhabitants before an offence is committed. I will return to the significance of that later.

The Sexual Offences Act, 1956, which consolidated a number of earlier enactments, provides severe punishments for offences connected with brothel keeping and living on the earnings of prostitution. So far as these latter offences are concerned, the hon. Member and the House will be aware that there are difficulties in enforcing the law. Proof is by no means easy, and long and patient observation is found necessary, but the police are constantly vigilant for offences of this kind. As hon. Members will have noticed, several cases have been prosecuted to conviction recently.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in replying to a Question by the hon. Member, stated that he and the Commissioner of Police did see cause for concern in the situation the hon. Member has described. That concern we all share and we have every sympathy for the feelings of respectable inhabitants of Stepney. I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend has taken a personal interest in this problem and kept closely in touch with all these developments. It was with his entire approval that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary and I visited the area at night. My right hon. Friend felt himself precluded from doing so and that it would be better not himself to take such action pending receipt of the Report of the Wolfenden Committee, but I can assure the House that he is concerned with this matter and is very closely in touch with all its developments.

It is true, unfortunately, that statistics indicate a considerable recent increase in offences connected with prostitution in Stepney. The number of arrests for solicitation was 449 in 1956, compared with 123 in 1954, and 255 in 1955. The indications are that this year will show a further considerable increase. There have also been increases in the number of prosecutions under the L.C.C. byelaws for outraging public decency and the number of proceedings for the offence of living on the earnings of prostitution.

To set the figures in perspective, I should say that the number of arrests for solicitation in the whole of the Metropolitan Police District was 10,948 in 1954; 11,173 in 1955; and 11,008 in 1956. Though the number of arrests in 1956 for soliciting in Stepney was 449 and the number of arrests for outraging public decency was 122, the total number of women involved in these 571 proceedings was 119.

I do not wish in any way to play down the seriousness of the situation, but the problems which have arisen in Stepney are not different in kind or character from those which exist elsewhere, as I think the hon. Gentleman very rightly pointed out. The hon. Gentleman has urged the Government to take action. The first thing I would say is that my right hon. Friend has no power over the courts, and it would be very wrong indeed if he sought to influence the sentencing policy of the courts. That, I am sure the House would agree, would raise very serious constitutional implications.

Further, any action for the moment—and I emphasise "for the moment"—can only take place within the framework of the existing law. It would, in any event, be out of order tonight to discuss suggestions for the amendment of the law, and, as the hon. Gentleman reminded us, the Wolfenden Committee will be making its Report next month.

My right hon. Friend is satisfied that the police are doing everything possible within their limited resources, and I think that the last year has seen a welcome improvement. They are still hampered by a shortage of manpower, but they are, my right hon. Friend is satisfied, doing their best to enforce the law. I was very grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about that. Arrangements have been made to concentrate resources in the area at the most difficult places, and the police are fully alive to the problem. Indeed, I think it would be fair to say that the increases in the number of proceedings are as much due to the increased activity of the police as to an increase in the number of offences.

I have discussed matters with senior police officers on the spot and have seen something of their problems, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and the way in which they are tackling them. I was profoundly impressed by their knowledge of and determination in the matter. I am also glad to be able to bear out what the hon. Gentleman said, that there has been close co-operation in Stepney between the local authority and the police. The Mayor has already had a discussion with the Deputy-Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, and my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State and I are receiving a deputation from the Council in the very near future, when it will, no doubt, have some suggestions to put to us.

I am pleased to bear out what the hon. Gentleman said, that no possible blame can attach in this matter to the local authorities. They have been vigilant and active—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eleven minutes to Twelve o'clock.