HC Deb 28 October 1969 vol 790 cc147-58

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

9.38 p.m

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (putney)

I rise to draw attention to the need to protect British girl dances who work abroad. For many years, troupes of British dancing girls have travelled in Europe and further afield. When I was a full-time member of the staff of Equity, we brought most of this employment under control, but in recent years it has again got out of hand.

Agents, club proprietors and troupe owners in this country and abroad have found ways and means of evading the controls which have been set up by Equity in the absence of any effective legislative control. they do this by advertising for girls straight from dancing school who are not, then at any rate, members of the appropriate trade union.

I want to give two examples of what happens. In the first case, the girl concerned was clever, or lucky, enough to escape. In the second, she was not. The first statement which I wish to read is from a girl who said that she attended an audition advertised in Stage for the Opal Dancers, who were two people named Pat Wallis and Gwen Lane. She performed a short dance and was told that she had the job. She continued: My fiancé, to whom I am now married, specially asked if there was to be any drinking with the customers, as I would not go if there was. The two charming women assured him that there would only be a glass of champagne with English visitors to the theatres and, foolishly, as I now see all too well, I decided to go in spite of Equity's advice to the contrary. On the journey we were called into one carriage and told that now we were in Italy we might as well know that we would be dancing in night clubs and that after the show we must sit with men and drink as much as we could and we would receive money according to the number of bottles opened. That night we sat from 7.30 p.m. to 11 p.m. being invited by men we could not understand and drinking as much as we could get down. at 11 p.m. we danced one number which didn't go down well, as we were clothed and the other acts were striptease. From 11.30 p.m. to 4.30 a.m. we sat again with the by-now-drink Italians. As most of the girls were quite un used to drink, there is no doubt that we were also affected. We arrived back at the hotel and cried ourselves to sleep. One girl left the next day and the two leaders gave her her fare as promised in the contract. We others decided to give the job a chance. I can see now that we were very foolish to do that, but we were all very young and naïve, one of us being only 16 years old. However, it went on just the same, night after night, until the dance routines completely stopped and we just 'consummated', as they called it. Perhaps I should say that that is drinking with the customers after the dancing is over. We were only paid sufficient money for meals as the two women told us that the rest hadn't been transferred from the English banks. We had about two pay days in all our time there and we had to borrow from the two women continually for necessary things. We therefore never had any money in our pockets, and it was clear that this was the deliberate policy of the two women so as to retain a complete hold over us. We had been befriended by two of the waiters who understood that we were not what dancers are commonly supposed to be in Italy, that we did not like going into the 'separates' with the men who came to the club and who, once we got into the semi-privacy of the booths, would try to make advances to us. These waiters popped in continually to prevent things going too far, and on one occasion one waiter had to punch my client's nose as I was crying out. The two employers were five feet away, but made no attempt to rescue me from the situation which I was in and in which one of the men had pushed me down to the floor and was practically forcing himself on top of me. After a couple of weeks we were told that we were going to another club. We hoped that it would be better, but it was, in fact, worse as in this club the 'consummation' was based on whisky and therefore one or more of us came home drunk every night. I decided that this was the end and asked the two women to be allowed to return to Britain. I asked them to let me have the return fare as promised in the contract, which I produced. She tore it up and told me to get out. She said that she would see me on the station with the money she owed us. The girls scraped round and two of us had enough money for our fares to Milan. I think that none of them could have eaten that night in order to get the money together. As we waited on the station, no one came and so we left. The story concludes by this girl getting away. In the event she had to borrow 10s. from American tourists to get the money sent out from England, and as a result she got home.

The other quotation which I wish to make from a personal case is very much shorter.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Member will come to some responsibility of some Government Department. He must do that.

Mr. Jenkins

Indeed, Mr. Speaker. I was introducing this case as an example to prove that this is not, as has been claimed, something which does not occur or something which the girls ought to expect to occur. It occurs to real people and it is, therefore, a real problem to which the Government ought to give attention.

Here is the other quotation: I've been abroad in Beirut for the Jimmy Jones agency of Lexington Street, London. I was promised that there was no consummation and that everything was O.K. and that all I had to do was dance, but it doesn't work out that way at all. I had to do things I'm ashamed of and I'll remember them all my life. It's practically forced prostitution. I have demonstrated that there is a problem here of which the Government must take real account and take more seriously than has been the case up to now.

The Board of Trade confirms that there is no employment available for British dancers in Iran, Turkey, or the Lebanon which conforms with Equity's reasonable requirements. Those countries should, therefore, be barred altogether. Meanwhile, employment in other countries—for example, Italy—needs careful scrutiny.

Equity asked the Board of Trade for permission to draw the attention of the national Press to the problems which the Board of Trade had agreed existed in those countries. The Board of Trade replied: After carefully considering your request, I am afraid that we must ask you not to get in touch with the national Press on this matter, but to content yourself to offering advice in your newsletter to would-be applicants". The Equity organiser, Mrs. Meredith, who tries to look after these matters, points out, in the absence of adequate protection: It seems their overworked Consuls are nor prepared to go into print and have … to my certain knowledge on certain occasions been extremely unhelpful in giving aid to our members trying to get released from white slave contracts, the attitude being 'they must have known what it was really going to be like '. The two cases I have quoted show that the girls concerned had no idea of what it would be like.

The Home Office confirms that neither the Theatrical Employers Registration Act nor the Employment Agencies Act offers real protection. The Minister will agree that existing legislation does not offer genuine protection. I appreciate that in this debate I am not allowed to advocate legislation. I am conscious of the fact that I am walking a tightrope and I have no doubt that you will tell me if I fall off, Mr. Speaker. These two existing pieces of legislation are useless for this purpose and we would be better off if they were not on the Statute Book, for they provide an illusion of protection which does not exist.

Equity publishes a list of agencies and employers who do not conform with their requirements and both of those I have mentioned appear on what is commonly called the "Equity warning list". But as Equity's organiser who looks after these matters points out, the situation is far from satisfactory. She says: As you know, dealing with the overseas side of the theatre business I get many 'strange' inquiries and many very sad letters from parents of lost daughters…. There is a steady trickle of silly girls and even stupider mums who are prepared to ship their daughters off overseas at the drop of a hat…. We are getting precious little support from the Local Public Control Authorities who, in spite of a current case where we have got an actual commission note signed by an agent who is not licensed at all, who has sent girls abroad, which same girls have had to be repatriated by the British Consul, are still too frightened to 'make a case of it' in case it fails and they waste public money. Then the whole position becomes impossible". The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department wrote saying: If you have evidence of this kind"— that is, the kind to which I have referred— we should be ready to look at it, but I doubt very much if there is a prospect of our being able to help you very far in this direction". I hope that, as a result of this debate, the Minister will be more helpful and hopeful than he was in that reply.

There is another case about which Mrs. Meredith, of Equity, points out that Westminster City Council refused to take action although it had proof and statements from Equity members. It seems that there is a serious weakness in the law here.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is falling off his tightrope. If there is a gap in the law we cannot seek to alter it in an Adjournment debate. The hon. Gentleman must confine himself to the administrative action that the Minister can take.

Mr. Jenkins

I fully recognised that I was skating a little towards the edge, Mr. Speaker, but I continued until you drew my attention to the fact, as I had not realised that I had fallen over that edge. I shall try not to do so again.

In referring to the administrative action that might be taken I want to quote again from Mrs. Meredith, whom I was quoting when you were kind enough to intervene to help me. She states: If the Home Office does not think that artistes are still being abandoned abroad and by agents who have got licences with the Westminster City Council, it should check with the Board of Trade. I do not know if you have seen the enclosed copies of letters sent to us earlier this year … but these certainly point to the fact that it is happening still, and in my own experience it is happening pretty frequently". What is to be done? First, the proprietors of all the newspapers which carry these advertisements should refuse advertisements from people who are listed on the Equity list as being guilty of these improprieties. At present, not even Stage does that. There is consultation between Equity and Stage on these matters, but it is not satisfactory, and Stage is not the only paper. There is Melody Maker, and some evening papers, too, carry the advertisements. Perhaps the Advertisement Standards Association might look at the problem. I understand that some discussions are currently taking place between Equity and Stage, and I hope that these discussions will lead to a more careful check.

As you say, Mr. Speaker, I am not allowed in an Adjournment debate to call for legislation, but I can say that I believe that the existing legislation should be re-examined with the utmost care to see whether more effective administration might not be made of it. If I may say so in parenthesis, if the Government had found time for my Employment Agencies Bill we should have closed at least one gap in the legislation. If employment agencies and entertainment can be brought under effective control, and if the Theatrical Employers' Registration Acts can be given effective administrative teeth, we shall make it impossible for agents and employers such as those I have described to remain in business.

Such changes take place, but it takes a long time to make even administrative changes fully effective. A ban should be made forthwith, and without further delay, on all advertisements which, under the pretence of offering dancing engagements abroad, really offer hostessing abroad, which is a very different proposition from hostessing in London. Such advertisements should be examined very carefully, and refused where they are not genuine.

It is also necessary for local authorities to use their limited powers to the full and not, as at present, seek any excuse to permit what should not be permitted. Westminster City Council, in particular, and other local authorities should be prepared to deprive these—and I think that it is not too strong a word to use—procurers of their licences.

My final quotation is from a girl in her 'thirties, a solo dancer who went out to Teheran and who, when she saw what was going on said, "No, not for me". She went to the consul, was treated well, and received her fare home. She said, referring to the troupe with whom she was asked to work: drinking is a must with the customers and it seems what follows is allowed, but it is the cheap way these girls are looking that hits out so hard…. I should like to emphasise that I am not setting up in competition with Mrs. Whitehouse. A girl who accepts a job in some London clubs as a hostess knows that she is likely to be the recipient of invitations to enter into relations, perhaps even sexual relations, with customers, and can make up her own mind to what extent, if any, she concedes actual favours instead of giving implied but unfulfilled promises.

But a girl who goes abroad expecting to dance is entitled to limit her services to that. She is in a very exposed position, and in a country where, very often, she does not speak the language and with no home there or friends or anything like that to turn to. She is always young, and often inexperienced. We have a duty to make sure that such girls are not placed in situations in which they have difficulty in avoiding what they themselves recognise as a process of degradation in which they suffer physically as well as in every other way.

This is not the permissive society. What I have been describing is compulsion to prostitution and it is high time that it was stopped.

9.55 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Elystan Morgan)

My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) is unflagging in the energy he exhibits in drawing to the attention of the House a variety of problems which arise in the entertainment world. Tonight he has urged the need to secure better protection for girls who go abroad—ostensibly, at least—to dance. He has shown how this issue involves a number of diverse aspects and has raised the major question, how far the State should assume a measure of responsibility for the safety and welfare of adults who go abroad for employment.

I deliberately say adults because we would all agree that the very young require special protection from dangers of various kinds and for many years there have been special safeguards for those under the age of 18 who go abroad to take part in entertainments, including dancing. Eighteen will shortly be the age of majority and in deciding last Session that this should be so we endorsed the view that those of 18 and over are in general capable of managing their own affairs. I do not for a moment suggest that adults require no protection at all, but in considering the issues raised by my hon. Friend it is relevant to remind ourselves that the need for protection varies inevitably with the age of the person under consideration.

The existing statutory protection for young people who go abroad to perform dates back to early this century when trafficking in women and children was a considerable social problem. It has been extended and modified on a number of occasions since then. The current provisions are contained in Part II of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933, as amended by the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963. Under Section 25 of the 1933 Act any person who takes, causes or procures any person under 18 to go abroad for the purpose of singing, playing, performing, or being exhibited, for profit, must obtain a licence from a magistrate at Bow Street.

The magistrate may grant a licence only if he is satisfied that the person's parents or guardian consents; that the young person is going abroad to fulfil a particular engagement; that he is fit for the purpose; that arrangements have been made to secure his health, kind treatment and adequate supervision while abroad, and his return from abroad when the licence expires; and that he has been furnished with a copy of the contract of employment or other document showing the terms and conditions of employment drawn up in a language he understands. A licence may contain special restrictions and conditions to safeguard the young person's welfare and is for three months only, but may be renewed, revoked or varied. The applicant is required to enter into a recognisance—normally for £100—for the observance of the restrictions and conditions in the licence, unless the magistrate is satisfied that this is unnecessary.

An applicant for a licence must give at least seven days advance notice to the police, who make a report to the magistrate on the application, indicating any reasons for or against the grant of a licence. The magistrate has absolute discretion whether to grant a licence and does not do so in practice unless satisfied that the young person will be properly chaperoned and looked after while abroad, even if the engagement does not run its full course, and will be returned to this country. These conditions are written into the licence. Another condition is that the arrival and address of the young person, and—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Elystan Morgan.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Morgan

Any changes of address or of place of employment must be reported to the appropriate British consul. Consular officers report to the chief magistrate any infringement of the licence or any unsatisfactory features. Arrangements are made to check that the young person does in fact return to this country.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

What my hon. Friend is describing is what should happen but not what in fact happens, because in the case I have quoted this was the type of infringement which should not be allowed, and one of the girls was under 16. If what my hon. Friend has just been describing was being complied with, how did that occur?

Mr. Morgan

I felt it my duty to tell the House what the legal provisions were and what the framework is. I appreciate that it is my hon. Friend's prerogative to give us examples of that system breaking down.

Breaches of these conditions are punishable by fine or imprisonment; and the maximum punishment for procuring a young person to go abroad by any false pretence or false representation is two years' imprisonment. My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that it is a serious criminal offence under the Sexual Offences Act, 1956, to procure a person to commit acts of prostitution, either in this country or abroad.

The House may be interested to know that during 1968 Bow Street granted 102 licences, of which 53 related to girls, 26 of whom were going abroad to dance. To date this year I understand that the total is 116 licences, including 44 for girls going abroad to dance. I understand that Bow Street, which works in close contact with the police, is not aware of any irregularities under the system. Control is also exercised in the issue of passports. If a girl under 18 states that she is going abroad to perform, a passport is not granted unless she has a licence from Bow Street.

I have gone at some length into the existing protection, because in considering the need to strengthen safeguards for girls who go abroad to dance it is important to remember the very considerable protection which is already provided, and has been for many years, for girls under 18. No system of this kind can be foolproof against evasion, but it can fairly be claimed that the system is about as watertight as is reasonably practicable.

My hon. Friend may concede that this is probably so, but I understand that his plea is not so much for the strengthening of safeguards which already exist for girls under 18, but rather the introduction of safeguards for those aged 18 and over. Here, both he and I are in a difficulty, and it has already been demonstrated in this debate that to transgress in this matter is as easy as falling of a tightrope. I can only make some general remarks on the position under the law as it stands, but that may be a case of Hamlet without the prince. Responsibility in relation to girls aged 18 and over who go abroad to dance does not rest with any single Government Department. I think that my hon. Friend rather wishes that it did, but that would be a most unusual principle of departmental organisation. Adult British subjects of all ages go abroad in their thousands and indeed hundreds of thousands every year for a multifarious variety of reasons. Some of them are, or may be, exposed to dangers of various kinds overseas. The particular danger which my hon. Friend has in mind is not one which arises exclusively in consequence of going abroad to dance. Nor is it the only kind of danger to which girl dancers—and others—may be subject.

The State owes a certain duty of protection to all its adult subjects, and to all its subjects who go abroad. I doubt if many would accept that adult girls going abroad to dance are a special category, which should be singled out for special safeguards not available to others, and perhaps made the subject of special arrangements for Ministerial responsibility.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Even the Minister cannot propose an amendment of the law which I would not allow the hon. Member to propose.

Mr. Morgan

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for showing exactly where the boundary lies in this connection.

All British subjects can claim help and protection from Her Majesty's representatives overseas. Mention of this has already been made tonight by my hon. Friend. All citizens living in this country benefit in the same way from the various protections afforded by the laws of the land, including the provision of the Sexual Offences Act, 1956, which, as I say, makes it an offence to procure a woman to become a common prostitute in any part of the world or to leave the United Kingdom to become the inmate of a brothel; all citizens have the same rights and responsibilities and the same freedom of movement and freedom to run their own lives and choose their own job.

I would have liked to have been able to expand this general theme by giving some specific instances in the fields for which my right hon. Friend has some responsibility, such as the regulation of theatres, and in fields such as employment agencies and advertising which are the responsibility of other Ministers. Unfortunately, I cannot do so since that would involve trespassing in the prohibited realm of the unmentionable. There would be nothing to prevent my hon. Friend or Equity suggesting to the appropriate advertising bodies voluntary restraint and control over bogus and misleading advertisements, if it were possible to identify such advertisements or the persons responsible for them. I certainly would not want it thought that the Government are unmindful of the matters which my hon. Friend has mentioned. We are not. But at present we are not persuaded that there is a special problem requiring special measures. I shall, however, bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said and I shall ensure that points he has raised which are the concern of my right hon. and hon. Friends in other Departments are brought to their notice.

If my hon. Friend has concrete and specific evidence additional to the cases that he has already drawn to the attention of the House tonight, these will receive my fullest consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Ten o'clock.