HC Deb 11 November 1980 vol 992 cc439-48

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

2.35 am
Mr. Thomas Cox (Tooting)

I wish to discuss the need for a review of the Vagrancy Act, particularly as it relates to prostitution and the changes in the law which I believe are needed. When the subject appeared on the Order Paper several hon. Members asked what the issue was to be. When I told them they said "Thank goodness that that issue is being discussed". I am talking of such people as my hon. Friends the Members for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard), Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) and Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall). That indicates that prostitution is a problem in other parts of the country.

Prostitution is an age-old problem. I doubt whether it can be stopped. Some people argue that it has a role in society. There are many types of prostitute. The discreet call girl or the nightclub hostess possibly offend no one. However, when prostitution takes place as it does in my constituency, that is another story.

Prostitution in the Bedford Hill area of Balham has existed for many years. I have often brought the problem to the attention of Ministers. Sometimes there is little activity by prostitutes but at other times there is a great deal of activity. That is certainly the position at present. I say to the Minister and to the police with whom I have discussed the problem, that my constituents have had enough—and I mean enough. They demand action to stop the harassment, the abuse, the threats and the violence which prostitutes inflict upon them.

From early afternoon until the early hours of the morning prostitutes operate in the area. I am told that they arrive in vans. Some of them are organised. Their minders can sometimes be seen—and so the day's prostitution begins. They parade the streets, sit on front walls and become an utter nuisance. As they arrive, so do their customers—the motorists and kerb crawlers.

Can the Minister understand what happens? Does he understand the accosting and harassment of decent, respectable women of all ages, including schoolgirls? To the kerb crawlers, any woman is a possible pick-up and they refuse to take "No" for an answer. One woman on her way home was repeatedly accosted by a motorist. He was told "Go away." He did not. The lady took his car number. She came to see me at my advice service and asked me to obtain his name and address. I took up the matter with the licensing centre at Swansea, but it refused to give me the details. Recently, a lady was outside her home cleaning the windows. A motorist stopped and called out "Are you out for business?" I could cite many similar examples. The Minister must understand the disgust felt by women when that happens to them.

Some may say that we should tell the prostitutes to go away so that the motorists would not hang around. I say to anyone who suggests that that he should try to do it. He would then hear the abuse and the threats. That is why Government action is needed and why a review of the Act is urgently required.

The Brennan report, published in 1976, considered the Act. It considered numerous issues such as indecent displays and suspected persons. It dealt with prostitution and kerb-crawling. The suggestion about a change in the law is contained in paragraph 97, which states: Our Working Paper suggests a new provision on the lines of it being an offence for a man persistently to accost a woman or women for sexual purposes in a street or pub-lice place in such circumstances as are likely to cause annoyance to the public, such as residents and users of the street. The maximum penalty would be a fine of £100 and/or three months imprisonment. There would be a power of arrest similar to that in the Street Offences Act. The only way to stop that sort of prostitution both in my area and in other areas would be for that suggestion to be made law.

If a police officer sees a motorist alone in a car driving round and round an area, stopping to talk to women or trying to accost them, can there really be any doubt about what he is seeking? The police with whom I have discussed the problem on many occasions speak to me of their problems—the shortage of manpower, the ability of women to change their appearance and the fact that they operate in an area for a few weeks and move on, when another group takes their place.

I have visited the Bedford Hill area at night. I have seen all that takes place there. I must say again to the Minister that we have had enough. Four years have passed since the Brennan report. What has happened to it? Is the Home Office still considering its proposals and, if so, for how long? Why cannot the Home Affairs Select Committee be asked to study its proposals if there is any doubt as to the possibility of turning its suggestions into a working law?

I have outlined the problem and tried to explain the deep disgust felt by local people, especially the women who are accosted. It will happen today and it will happen every day until something is done about changing the existing law. The report covers several issues calling out for review and change. An important piece of legislation could be introduced to cover all those issues. It would not call for any vast expense but it would lead to a sensible change in the law. I suggest that the time for that is now.

I beg the Minister seriously to consider what I have said. I ask him not to tell me that he is sorry about the problems faced by my constituents day after day, but that he can do nothing about them. It is he and his Department who have the power to change the existing law. I cannot believe that the House would oppose such change.

My constituents and I intend to do all we can to see that the present law is changed, because that is the only way in which this problem can be solved. It most certainly will not go away. Action must be taken to stop it.

2.45 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Leon Brittan)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) for giving the House this opportunity to discuss a difficult and sensitive issue in the criminal law. He has described vividly for us the problems of prostitution and also the problems created by men soliciting for the services of a prostitute, especially by kerb-crawling.

I particularly appreciate the difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman has referred tonight, difficulties that are faced by innocent women and children who happen to live in areas where prostitutes are known to be active on the streets. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have listened with careful attention to his account of the embarrassment and even humiliation to which they may be exposed.

The growth of this particular form of soliciting was noted as long ago as 1957 by the Wolfenden committee in its report on homosexual offences and prostitution. That committee felt unable to make any recommendations about it, but it has been the subject of considerable thought since then.

It may be of assistance if I try to place this form of activity in its context. It is in a sense related to prostitution, because the men involved usually claim to be looking for prostitutes, and that claim receives support from the presence of prostitutes on the streets in the area concerned.

The recommendations of the Wolfenden committee led to the Sexual Offences Act 1959. Section 1 of that Act is the main provision for the control of the nuisance caused by prostitutes plying their trade in the streets. The section makes it an offence for a prostitute to loiter or solicit in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution. It is also an offence under the Vagrancy Act 1824 for a prostitute in a street or any place of public resort to behave in a riotous or indecent manner, but that offence is obsolete.

The existence of the 1959 Act and the offence provided by section 1 shows that the type of activity described by the hon. Gentleman, in so far as it is carried out by the prostitute, is something that the law is not powerless to deal with, and that the problem is one of law enforcement.

The Street Offences Act has had considerable success in reducing the visible nuisance of prostitutes soliciting in the streets. Some idea of its immediate effect may be gained by comparing the figure of 19,663 prosecutions for soliciting in 1958 with the 1960 figure of 2,828. The number of women proceeded against for loitering or soliciting for the purposes of prostitution has tended to rise slightly since then—there were 3,911 prosecutions in 1978, which led to 3,774 convictions—but on the whole the Act has been successful in substantially reducing the presence of prostitutes on the streets.

Nevertheless, even with the population of prostitutes on the streets considerably diminished, soliciting by men, including kerb-crawling, continues. The hon. Gentleman is right to ask what is being done about it. First, the question of police action arises. Then one must consider the nature of the law as it stands.

I should first explain that police action in relation to soliciting and kerb-crawling is a matter within the operational responsibility of the chief officer of police for the area concerned—in the case of the hon. Member's constituency the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. It is not, therefore, something in which the Home Secretary has authority to intervene. While there will always be room for discussion about the deployment of police resources and about what should be the priorities in policing, in the end this is, and must remain, a matter for each chief officer to decide in the light of the needs and problems of his area.

It is fair to point out with regard to kerb-crawling that because of the legal considerations, which I shall come to, the scope for action is sometimes limited. Motorists driving slowly at night in streets where traffic is light do not necessarily create an obstruction, nor is it easy to secure evidence that would justify a charge under section 5 of the Public Order Act for the use of insulting words or behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace. Where a prostitute is approached she would hardly take offence at that or be concerned about any ensuing verbal wrangle. And where a respectable resident is mistakenly approached it may be difficult to obtain proof of any offence, especially where she, as the only witness, may be reluctant, for entirely understandable reasons, to become involved in any proceedings.

I understand from the Commissioner, however, that the local police are very much aware of the extent of public concern about the problems to which the hon. Member has drawn attention. The local chief superintendent has, I believe, shared a platform with the hon. Member to discuss the matter at a local residents' meeting. This sort of participation does much to foster better understanding and good relations between the police and the public.

In terms of police operations on the ground, I am told that regular patrols are deployed in the area concerned and action is taken where possible to deal with conduct that offends against the law. Generally, this has to be directed against soliciting by prostitutes which in time can reduce the nuisance of kerb-crawling. But the problem then tends to move to another area and police action there can have the effect that the prostitutes return to their former haunts. The Commissioner tells me that a close watch will continue to be kept on the situation in the Bedford Hill area and that the local police will take such action as they can. I know, too, that careful note will be taken of what has been said tonight about the extent of the nuisance caused and the very real and understandable worries of those affected by it.

I turn now to the law which the hon. Gentleman suggested is in need of reform. Until 1966 it was generally considered that kerb-crawling could be dealt with under section 32 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, which makes it an offence for a man persistently to solicit or importune in a public place for immoral purposes. In 1966, however, the Divisional Court, in the case of Crook v. Edmondson—reported in 1966 2 Queen's Bench Reports, page 81—ruled that "immoral purposes" under this section did not include sexual intercourse between the accused man and the woman that he approached. It then became difficult for the police to deal with men soliciting women.

The situation was recognised to be generally unsatisfactory and the specific problem of kerb-crawling was looked at by the working party on vagrancy and street offences in the context of a general review of this area of the law. In the course of the review it was suggested to the working party that what was required was a statutory reversal of Crook v. Edmonson so that section 32 of the Sexual Offences Act could once more apply to men who persistently solicited or importuned women in public places. But the views of the working party and of the Brennan report to which the hon. Gentleman referred were that this apparently simple solution was not the best and that a new offence should be created to deal with the situation. The details of that offence have been given to the House by the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentlemen rightly pointed out that it is four years since the working party reported and asked what action the Government now propose to take about kerb-crawling.

As to the future, as I pointed out, kerb-crawling and, indeed, soliciting by men in any other way, are, to some extent at least, a concomitant to prostitutes carrying out their business in the streets. In our view, the whole question is merely one aspect of the wider area of sexual offences. Even if we confine ourselves to the simple question of kerb-crawling, the paragraphs in the working party's report following the one quoted by the hon. Gentleman—that is, paragraphs 98 and 99—illustrate that there are issues at stake in this matter which make it less straightforward than the simple introduction of the enactment referred by by the hon. Gentleman would seem to suggest.

In view of the time limit on this debate, I shall not read the list of problems and controversies referred to in the report, but they are substantial, and they show that it would be unwise simply to legislate on this matter without looking at sexual offences generally.

Before the working party reported, the then Home Secretary had decided to refer the whole law on sexual offences to the Criminal Law Revision Committee, which is being assisted by the Policy Advisory Committee on Sexual Offences. That was what was done. The previous Government and this Government thought it right not to deal with the problem in isolation. This is a very complex area of the law in which it would be wrong, in our view, to take action in advance of the committee's considered recommendations. When it has completed its review, it will be appropriate, in our view, for any legislation arising out of its recommendations to deal with kerb-crawling and at the same time to implement any other changes that are recommended and thought appropriate in this area of the law as a whole.

I appreciate that it is disappointing for the hon. Gentleman, who has made a very sound case for the need for a change in the law which I have no difficulty in accepting, to be told that that must wait for a wider consideration of a group of offences. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if I believed that this was an offence which was quite unrelated to other matters, I would not seek to use the existence of the Criminal Law Revision Committee and the Policy Advisory Committee on Sexual Offences as a shield to protect myself or the Government against an accusation of inaction. But the problem of kerb-crawling is, and can readily be seen to be, related closely to prostitution more generally and the offences associated with that, as well as sexual offences as a whole.

Therefore I must say regretfully to the hon. Gentleman that the Government have taken the view that we must wait for the Criminal Law Revision Committee on Sexual Offences to report on these matters before legislating. But I am happy to take this opportunity to register my shared concern with the hon. Gentleman about a mischief which he is right to underline.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o'clock am.