HC Deb 19 June 1981 vol 6 cc1319-28

Order for Second Reading read.

1.48 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill seeks to do two things only. First, it seeks to abolish the term "common prostitute". Secondly, it seeks to remove the sentence of imprisonment.

The reason for abolishing the term "common prostitute" is that it is the only example that I know of on the statute book in which a person is by implication said to be guilty before having pleaded. The person appearing before the court is named as a common prostitute who did loiter to solicit for prostitution". That is analogous to saying that someone is a common thief before that person has pleaded guilty or not guilty to a charge of theft. That is why the Bill seeks to get rid of the term. The term was originally well-intended, in that it was designed to be a warning to women seen by the police to be soliciting. In practice, however, the result is to make a prison sentence more likely.

There is considerable support for my view that imprisonment is not an appropriate sentence for the offence of soliciting. It is almost impossible to argue sensibly that soliciting—being a prostitute; perhaps the oldest profession in the world—can be a threat to society. Clearly, it is not. Most people are beginning to accept that imprisonment should be used only in the most extreme cases where there is a threat to society.

The public have become increasingly aware in recent years of the appalling level of double standards. A man may stop women who may or not be prostitutes and suggest that they have sex with him. In the vast majority of cases he will not be committing an offence and, therefore, will not risk imprisonment. A woman who stops a man and offers sex is committing an offence and can easily be sent to prison. I never cease to be amazed by the dexterity and versatility of human behaviour, but I am aware that it takes two to have sexual intercourse, and the vast majority of people are aware that there is a double standard between men and women.

Another reason why I oppose imprisonment is that it tends to make matters much worse. If the woman has children and there is no other member of the family to look after them, they have to go into care. Debts mount up and are frequently not paid. The result can be that, on release from prison, the woman has to go back to soliciting in order to pay those debts.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

I apologise for not being here for the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. Has he any figures for the number of women who have been sent to prison for such offences in recent years?

Mr. Soley

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman exact figures off the top of my head, but they are available. The number has been declining in some areas, but it varies from area to area. The last figure that I recall is that such women make up 10 per cent. of the female prison population. I do not know whether that figure is still accurate, but the numbers involved are significant. If only one child were taken into care as a result of his mother being sent to prison, that would be a sufficient case for the Bill.

Soliciting of the type that we are talking about often occurs when a woman is unable to pay bills for electricity, gas, rent and so on and goes out to solicit in order to earn extra money. There is no evidence that imprisonment deters and, in many cases, it can increase the re-conviction rate, for the reasons that I have given.

One of the most important points that I wish to make is that the Bill has attracted no opposition. The House will recall that there was no Division when I introduced it under the Ten Minutes Rule. I have received two expressions of hostility to what I am doing, but they were not even directly about the Bill. They were concerned with another matter. On the other hand, I have had a number of letters—not a large number—and telephone calls, including, significantly, some from ex-magistrates and practising magistrates, in support of what I am doing.

The organisation known as PROS—the Programme for Reform of the Law on Soliciting—canvassed hon. Members on the matter, and only 8 per cent. of the 250 replies favoured keeping imprisonment. That is a small percentage. Obviously PROS and the English Collective of Prostitutes support the Bill, but so does the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group, which has already made a recommendation along similar lines.

The Police Federation opposes the imprisonment of prostitutes, as does the Prison Governors' Association. The National Association of Probation Officers, the British Association of Social Workers, the National Council for Civil Liberties, the Josephine Butler Society, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, the Howard League and many other organisations, together with individuals from the legal profession, have expressed support for the Bill. I have had not one letter from an organisation expressing hostility to the Bill. The hon. Members for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) and Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) have asked my to say that, although they cannot be here, they are very much in favour of the Bill.

So where is the resistance to this simple, humane measure? The problem is that the law relating to sexual offences has been referred to the Criminal Law Revision Committee, assisted by the Policy Advisory Committee on Sexual Offences. The Government do not want to legislate in advance of the Criminal Law Revision Committee's report.

The Minister said in a letter to me: For my part I have no desire to see prison accommodation occupied by prostitutes, unless there are circumstances where this is clearly and abundantly justified in the public interest, and if the Committee were to recommend, especially on the basis of general support for the proposal, that imprisonment should no longer be available for such offenders then I anticipate that we would consider such a proposal very seriously and with sympathy. Naturally, however, the report would have to be considered as a whole, since individual proposals would need to be related to the entire code of which they would form part. I have deliberately kept the Bill simple and uncontentious to aid its passage in such a way that complications are not caused later. The provisions of the Bill are the very least that the Criminal Law Revision Committee can recommend. If it does not recommend the abolition of imprisonment, the Government should go ahead on their own initiative on the basis of the support that has already been shown. Ideally, prostitutes should be charged only if there is a witness who is prepared to go to court and complain that a nuisance has been committed. I think that I am right in saying that that is what the all-party penal affairs group recommended.

If the Government say that they will allow the Bill to go forward, I do not think that we shall unreasonably prejudice the report that is due from the committee. My guess is that when it has seen the weight of evidence in favour of the Bill it will, if anything, go further than I propose. The very least that I ask the Minister to do is to say that, unless the committee gives strong reasons why imprisonment should remain available to the courts, he will legislate along the lines of the Bill.

I hope that I have convinced the House of the logic of the case, but I remind hon. Members that we are talking about human beings who are at this moment in prison and whose children will be affected by the Bill. I shall briefly give two case histories.

The first is of a woman aged 30, a single parent, with three children, aged 9 months, 4 years and 6 years. She was 20 when she first appeared in court on a loitering charge. In the same year she received a suspended sentence. She went to prison on two occasions in 1974. In 1975 she was imprisoned again, and she had her first baby in prison. In order to maintain a home and the baby, she continued to solicit. She already had four prison sentences and no hope of a job. She was imprisoned again in 1976 and was separated from her baby, who went to foster parents.

In 1977 the woman received another prison sentence and was again separated from her child. In 1978 she was imprisoned again. She was pregnant. Her baby was born in 1978, and she tried to maintain a home. The bond between her and the first child was weakening. She had been separated from her child for at least three months every year since the child was born. She was in a desperate state. She was imprisoned again in 1979. Her second baby was lost to her, as the foster parents took over, and she lost her council home in 1979, as she was unable to pay the rent while she was in prison. She went to prison again in 1980.

That woman has been in prison nine times and has lost her second child and her home because of that. At present she has a young baby, and she is fighting to get back her house and to strengthen the bond between herself and her eldest child. She is trapped in a cycle that cannot be broken. Once a girl has been in prison she seems to go back all the time.

The second woman is aged 23. She is a single-parent with two children, one of whom is aged 18 months and one of whom is 4 years old. She received her first prison sentence when her eldest child was 2½ years old. Anyone who knows anything about child development will know that that is a crucial age for a child to be separated from his parents. They had always been close and had never been separated before. The boy was taken into care and placed in a residential nursery. While in prison she missed him terribly and developed a nervous eczema.

On her release she found that she was two months behind with her bills. She owed hire purchase payments on several articles, and she also owed rent. In addition, it took the child a long time to settle down. He wet the bed and kept having tantrums. The whole experience was a nightmare. She had all the pressure of the extra financial strain, as well as the realisation of the devasting damage that the separation had done to her child. She came close to a nervous breakdown. She still suffers from eczema. She now works in a sauna, and no doubt her job will allow her to solicit virtually without risk of imprisonment.

If the Government were to allow the Bill to pass through the House they could head off much unnecessary suffering without prejudicing their position in relation to the Criminal Law Revision Committee. I hope that the House will accept the Bill.

2.1 pm

Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

As one of the Bill's sponsors, I rise briefly to support the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley). In order to be here, I had to cancel a ladies' luncheon in my constituency with our women's advisory committee. I have sent a message to say that I must be in the Chamber because I am defending their interests. I am sure that they will understand what I mean.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on all the work that he has put in to getting the Bill so far. His work is greatly appreciated by all concerned. Some might have hoped for a longer debate, with a fuller Chamber. They might have hoped for ringing and passionate speeches. I am glad that the debate has taken the form that it has. It is appropriate that such business should be tacked on to the last 40 minutes of a Friday, because this is a non-controversial unexceptionable little piece of legislation. It is utterly sensible. Such a provision is not on the statute book either because many people do not realise that prostitutes are still sent to prison or because the burden of legislation has been so great that no one has had time to enact such a measure.

I noted with pleasure the remarks made by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister in his letter to the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North. I hope that I have not misinterpreted them. They seemed, rightly, to change the burden of proof. If anyone thinks that prostitutes should still be sent to gaol, that person should state the compelling social reasons for imprisonment. If the Criminal Law Revision Committee feels that there are such compelling social reasons, it should state them. Unless it feels that there are such reasons, the committee should recommend something broadly along the lines of the hon. Gentleman's Bill.

Many of my hon. Friends had not realised that prostitutes were still being sent to prison. Indeed, it is surprising how few people realise that. One would have to search far and wide to find many people who thought imprisonment right. However, a confusion arises. A person can be sent to gaol for the non-payment of a fine. I understand that the Bill does not alter that. We wish to prevent a woman from being sent to gaol for prostitution. Courts must always have the final remedy of being able to send a person to prison for the non-payment of a fine.

I reiterate my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North, and I hope that the Minister will be able to offer some encouragement in response to what has been said.

2.3 pm

Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) on a Ten-Minute Bill which has apparently passed through the House without opposition from either side. It is regrettable that so little time has been afforded to it today.

I shall start where my hon. Friend finished—on the subject of the type of people that prostitutes are. In 1971 some research was carried out by Professor Gibbens into prostitutes who were or had been in Holloway prison. He found that 15 per cent. of them had a history of mental breakdown, that 25 per cent. had attempted suicide, that 25 per cent. were alcoholics and that a further 25 per cent. were dependent on other drugs. It is no wonder that the Police Federation has decided that the majority of prostitutes are inadequate for a variety of health, mental and other reasons and in need of medical help.

What is the extent of recidivism among prostititutes sent to prison? Is there any evidence that prison reforms the habitual prostitute or the prostitute who will not or cannot pay fines? There does not seem to be any good purpose served by putting these women in prison. There is evidence that they convert fellow prisoners to prostitution. The Home Office's working party on vagrancy and street offences in 1976 stated that the prison service does not see itself as having a useful role to play in the care of prostitutes.

A further strong argument in favour of my hon. Friend's Bill is the need to make prostitution a non-custodial offence. Opposition Members have made that point since the prison crisis became worse than ever. The number of non-custodial offences should be increased wherever possible. Prisons should be used only as a last resort for those who have committed serious offences and from whom the public need to be protected. It could not possibly be argued that prostitution is a crime against which the public need to be protected, because there is no innocent victim—indeed no victim at all.

The view is increasingly held among those who work with offenders that we should be trying to keep certain types of offenders out of prison, such as the mentally disordered, many maintenance defaulters and prostitutes. The Minister told my hon. Friend by letter that the Government are generally sympathetic to the Bill. What is the Government's attitude generally to reducing the number of custodial offences?

During the prison officers' dispute, the number of those in prison was reduced from 44,000 to 39,600, but it has now returned to the previous figure. It is suspected, but not certain, that one of the reasons for that great reduction was that fine defaulters were not being sent to prison. I was encouraged by the Minister's ready conversion during the last minutes on Report on the Indecent Displays Bill. He will recall that, under pressure from Opposition Members, at the eleventh hour he agreed to deny magistrates the power to imprison offenders. Yet, in the letter to my hon. Friend he says: We are … very concerned to ensure that custodial sentences are passed only on those offenders whose detention is necessary for the protection of the public". It all seems promising, but I was less encouraged by the Minister's remarks at Question Time on 11 June, when I drew his attention to the new imprisonable offence being introduced in the Contempt of Court Bill. He said that the Government did not advocate depriving the courts of the power to impose a custodial sentence if they wished to use it, where policy dictated that that was desirable. It seems to follow that the Minister feels that the option of a prison sentence should always be available to a court for any criminal offence. If that is his view, should he not be opposed to the Bill and opposed to any criminal offence being made non-custodial? Perhaps he would clarify the Government's attitude to this whole matter, which at the moment is unclear and contradictory.

If there are any offences such as prostitution which the Minister considers should be non-custodial, perhaps he would tell us now, so that we do not have to wait for another Ten-Minute Bill for the Minister to decide that he favours a particular offence being a non-custodial one. Let us have his list this afternoon.

The other favourable effect of my hon. Friend's Bill would be to reduce the number of women in prison. There have always been fewer women than men in prison. That is because they are naturally more law abiding. They are not a criminal sex, as is the male sex. But, unfortunately, the number of women going into prison is gradually rising.

In the past, courts have discriminated against men and in favour of women when people are sentenced to prison. I think they still do. When a man and a woman are found guilty of a similar offence, the man may get a prison sentence while the woman does not—I do not think that that is right—but there are now more women in prison than ever before, and many of them have been convicted of serious or even violent offences.

Overcrowding in most of our prison system is rampant but is especially serious in women's prisons. The recent prison report showed that there are now 1,646 women in prison. There is an increase in cell-sharing, and overcrowding has become endemic, especially for remand women prisoners. The cost of keeping a woman in prison is £140 a week, yet the number of establishments for women prisoners remains small?

Of the total of 1,646 women in prison in 1979, according to Home Office figures, there were 157 prostitutes who had been sent to prison on conviction for a first offence. But the NACRO figures for 1980 show that there were 308 women prostitutes remanded in prison and convicted in that year. So, although 308 may seem a small number out of a total male and female prison population of over 43,000, if we take the 308 out of the women's prison system there is a significant drop in the total. Their removal would have a significant effect upon overcrowding in those prisons, on the shortage of staff in those prisons, and on the general life of the prisoners.

There are, therefore, several extremely strong arguments in favour of my hon. Friend's Bill. It will create another non-custodial offence—something that we want to encourage—and it will reduce overcrowding in women's prisons. Last but not least, the offence of prostitution is not suitable for imprisonment; neither is the type of person convicted of that offence.

2.12 pm
Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

I support the Bill with enthusiasm and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) on having introduced it. I am pleased to be one of the sponsors of the Bill.

It is important that we bear in mind the distinction between the so-called offence of prostitution, on the one hand, and noise nuisance and disturbance that may take place late at night and may, in the minds of some people, be associated with prostitution, on the other. I am sure that it is desirable and proper that people should be able, late at night, to be free from excessive noise and disturbance. Indeed, it has been a local issue in my constituency. But that is quite different from having an offence of prostitution for which today people are still sent to prison. I should like the law to make a clear distinction between the two and to come down fairly heavily on people who disturb their neighbours late at night with car door slamming, and so on.

As other hon. Members have said, usually no one is harmed by the offence of prostitution. It is an arrangement between a prostitute and her client. Usually it is a private arrangement, and that is all there is to it. It so happens that a sum of money will change hands. I would have thought that the distinction between what happens in such cases and ordinary sexual behaviour, which is not the subject of a criminal offence, is fairly thin.

Not many months ago a lady who ran a brothel in Streatham was sent to prison. I believe that the case was called the "luncheon voucher" case. There was no evidence that anyone had been harmed or disturbed. It is unacceptable that women should be sent to prison for this offence. There is no justification for it. I would go further, and say that I am not even convinced that there should be an offence called prostitution. I think that the only offence should be noise, nuisance or disturbance, the more so because most of the people who cause the noise, nuisance and disturbance happen to be the men who are looking for the women and not the women themselves.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bethnal Green and Bow)

And they get off scot free.

Mr. Dubs

And they get off scot free. The law bites only on the women. It does not affect the men who cause the noise and disturbance.

I understand fully that people living in certain areas are a little anxious about what they call prostitution. What causes women anxiety is the behaviour of men in their locality, and the fact that they, as innocent passers-by, may be accosted by men. I argue that the offence is caused by the men themselves and not by the women, who are theoretically to blame and get the opprobrium. It is therefore right and proper that hon. Members should be discussing the Bill. I hope that the Minister will give it his full support. We should do away with imprisonment as a penalty for prostitution, and I hope that before too long we shall get rid of the offence of prostitution itself.

2.17 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

I think that all hon. Members will join in congratulating the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) on getting the Bill before the House and giving us the opportunity, albeit shortly, to discuss this important subject, particularly the two aspects to which he refers.

The hon. Gentleman has put the case for abolishing the term "common prostitute", but not much time has been taken over that matter because it is of less importance than the other limb of the Bill, which is to abolish the availability of imprisonment under section 1 of the Street Offences Act 1959 for the offence of soliciting. The Government fully appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern with these issues in bringing forward the Bill.

I believe that all Members are concerned that the prison population should be kept to a minimum consistent with the proper protection of the public. None of us wants to see it increased by the imprisonment of prostitutes unless there are circumstances where imprisonment is clearly and abundantly justified in the public interest. In correspondence, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, I have explained that that is my view.

I have also been obliged to explain, however, that, as part of its wider remit to inquire into the whole code of sexual offences, the matter has been referred to the Criminal Law Revision Committee, which is acting with the advice of the Policy Advisory Committee on Sexual Offences. I have felt obliged to inform the hon. Gentleman that we believe that it would be unwise, and seriously unwise, to legislate on a particular issue until this committee, which is extremely high-powered and widely respected, has had the opportunity to discharge that remit.

Mr. Mikardo

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mayhew

I have been pressed to give the Government's view. Hon. Members have spoken with commendable brevity. The less I am interrupted, the more I shall be able to explain the Government view. However, I recognise that the hon. Gentleman's interventions are always short.

Mr. Mikardo

My question will take less time than the hon. and learned Gentleman took in resisting it. I merely wish to ask whether he has any idea of the time scale in which we may expect the report?

Mr. Mayhew

I was coming to that. I should perhaps come to it straight away. The law relating to sexual offences was referred to the Criminal Law Revision Committee by the then Home Secretary, Mr. Roy Jenkins, in 1975.

The aspect that we are dealing with today was not specifically identified. Its terms of reference were to review, in consultation with the Policy Advisory Committee the law relating to, and penalties for, sexual offences.

The normal practice is to issue a working paper. Although I do not have a date for the expected working paper—it has not been able to publish a timetable—I guess that it is expected within the next year. I cannot say that we shall have the recommendations within weeks or months. However, it publishes a working paper in the normal course of events.

The Government's concern is to keep the prison population down, as is well known. I was a little surprised by the tone of the intervention of the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill). The Government have done more than any other Government in recent times—certainly more than the Government of which the hon. Lady was a distinguished member of the Home Office team—to provide alternatives to the courts for custodial sentences. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's determination to reduce the prison population to the minimum that is consistent with public protection is well known.

The Wolfenden committee considered that imprisonment would not, of itself, effect reform of those who are prostitutes, but that its availability might make the courts anxious to try, and individual prostitutes more willing to accept, the use of probation in individual cases. The Wolfenden committee felt that many women who had adopted a life of prostitution could be led to renounce it by inquiry into their personal problem and by advice and treatment which the probation service could give.

The committee had not lightly reached the decision to recommend the availability of imprisonment. It recognised that in the overwhelming majority of cases the prostitute would have to pay any fines that were imposed from the proceeds of her prostitution, either by passing them on in the form of increased charges to her clients, or by seeking more customers.

The committee was sanguine about the prospect of increased charges which might in themselves tend to curb demand, and therefore supply. However, it felt that there was a distinct possibility that it would lead to prostitutes seeking more customers and causing the prostitute to be even more active on the streets, and if that were to happen, increasing the fine would defeat its own object. On the ground, therefore, that increased fines might in themselves prove inadequate, the committee recommended that imprisonment had to be available as a sanction of last resort for repeated offences.

I said that the Wolfenden committee produced recommendations that were of a radical and liberal nature to show that this is not an absolutely open and shut case. If it were, the Government would have less reason to wait upon the deliberations of the Criminal Law Revision Committee. The Wolfenden committee took that view in 1958 or 1959. Plainly, it is not a totally black and white case.

The Wolfenden committee was not the most recent body to consider the issue. The working party on vagrancy and street offences said in its working paper published considerably more recently: Since the passing of the Street Offences Act, soliciting by prostitutes in the streets has visibly been greatly reduced. This was the agreed view of all those whom we consulted, including some with a thorough and long-standing knowledge of the problem … The number of prosecutions for soliciting remains strikingly lower than in the 1950s. The Act has demonstrably had considerable success in its aim of clearing prostitutes from the streets". Imprisonment sentences have remained below 300 a year since the early 1960s. The percentage of those found guilty who are sentenced to imprisonment has stabilised at about 5 or 6 per cent. Those figures do not include those who are sent to prison in default of payment of fines. It is important to note that that is a separate matter.

I was asked about recidivism. There is not enough evidence to enable a conclusion to be drawn either way. What evidence there is points to the fact that a number of prostitutes are sentenced to second, third and further terms of imprisonment for street soliciting, and also that a number succeed in avoiding appearing in court again after they have received one prison sentence. It may be that a spell in prison causes them to be more careful in their soliciting, or perhaps to take their activities off the streets into saunas or escort agencies. Some give up prostitution. It is not possible to draw clear conclusions about the extent of recidivism for those who have been sentenced to imprisonment.

Even taking account of the relatively small number who are sent to prison each year, there is no doubt that a useful contribution to diminishing prison numbers could be made. The whole issue turns on whether there is, if only in a few cases, a compelling reason in the public interest why imprisonment should remain available to the courts. On the other hand, it is fair to report that when the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group considered the matter in its report "Too Many Prisoners" published in June last year, it rehearsed the arguments for and against the imprisonment of prostitutes and concluded that the offence of soliciting should not be punishable by a prison sentence.

The review being undertaken by the Criminal Law Revision Committee will, I am confident, be weighty and deserving of respect.. The committee has been in existence since 1959. It has always attracted a membership of high calibre. It has invited observation from members of the appellate committee in the House of Lords, the judges of the Supreme Court and all interested bodies. It will receive advice on sexual offences from the Policy Advisory Committee.

The committee has embarked on a scheme that invites preliminary observations from an enormously wide range of bodies. I do not have time to list them, but they include all advisory bodies and representatives of organisations representing prostitutes, such as Prostitution Laws are Nonsense, Programme for Reform of the Law on Street Offences and English Collective of Prostitutes. They have already made their views known to the committee.

We look forward to receiving the final report of the committee on this important topic. I think that I have gone as far as anyone in my position could be expected to go. I cannot pre-empt the ultimate recommendations of the Criminal Law Revision Committee on a matter so important as this, without causing it to wonder why it is spending time on these matters. I have no desire to see prison accommodation occupied by prostitutes unless there are circumstances where it is clearly abundantly justified and in the public interest.

If the committee recommends, especially on the basis of general support for the proposal, that imprisonment should no longer be available for such offences, I expect that the Government will consider that proposal seriously and with sympathy. I have gone much further than any previous representative of any Government, and certainly further than any representative of the Labour Government, of which the hon. Member for Halifax was a member.

When the Government receive that report they will carefully consider the scope of any legislation that may be necessary in that area, taking the proposals as a whole, as we must do. It would be most unwise to attempt piecemeal action to amend the law in advance of the committee's considered recommendations in that complex area.

I appreciate and respect the hon. Gentleman's motives. His professional life has brought him very much in touch with this and other important social matters, which have led him to introduce the amendments that are contained in the Bill. I say with regret that the Government cannot give it the practical and effective welcome that I know the hon. Gentleman is seeking. The Government suggest that the House should await the report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 10 July.