HC Deb 17 May 1985 vol 79 cc658-60

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [10 May], That the clause (no publicity before finding of guilt) proposed on consideration of the Bill, not amended (in the Standing Committee), be read a Second time: 'Pending or during any proceedings under this Act it shall be an offence to mention publicly, publicise or broadcast the name or names of anyone accused under its provisions before such time as such person or persons is found guilty.'—[Mr. Marlow.]

11.15 am

Question again proposed.

Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

I was on my feet when the debate on the new clause was adjourned last Friday. The new clause was proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow). Its purpose is to protect from press publicity persons who are charged, but who might later be found to be innocent, of any of the offences with which the Bill deals.

If the chances of the innocent being charged were small, the need for protection from publicity would be less of a priority. For that reason, and because I hope that we shall be able to agree a course of action which renders the danger of mistaken prosecution less likely, I shall stray a little wide of new clause 8.

There has been a great deal of unhappiness about various parts of the Bill. The Minister has agreed to the withdrawal of clause 3, which I thought to be misconceived. Clause 4 increases penalties for various sexual offences and that meets with the approval of the whole House.

Clause 2 puts the man soliciting in the street in the same jeopardy of prosecution as a woman soliciting a man in the street and as a man soliciting a man in the street. That seems fair.

The only other clause about which I and other hon. Members have serious reservations is clause 1 which places the male motorist soliciting a woman in greater jeopardy than the male motorist soliciting a man or a female motorist soliciting a man. That seems wrong and requires explanation.

The Minister argues that the clause is justified and that the insertion of the word "persistently" into that clause would make the law difficult to enforce. I do not accept that. I do not believe that the police find it difficult to enforce the laws on female prostitution, under which a woman has to be cautioned formally three times, or the law covering the man who is suspected of importuning. That offence has to be "persistent". I understand the Minister's argument, and hope that he understands mine.

If the Minister were prepared to allow another place to examine the new clause with particular reference to the doubts and anxieties which I described last week, if' he undertook to maintain an open mind on the subject and ensured that the House of Lords at least had the opportunity to consider the new clause or another amendment, I should be happy to leave the matter to the judgment of my hon. Friend the Minister and their Lordships.

I am still certain of the strength of my argument, but I cannot say that my certainty is matched by that of other hon. Members. There seems to be widespread indifference and hon. Members appear to believe that there is nothing to worry about. I wonder whether it is correct for one hon. Member to pursue his own strong feelings on the subject, especially if there might be an opportunity for fresh consideration in another place.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) has spoken handsomely this morning in accordance with the highest traditions of the House. I thank him warmly both on my behalf and on behalf of the Bill's promoter, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), who unfortunately cannot be with us today.

I am sure that we now have a way forward. Last week we were able to clear away most of the difficulties that lay in the way of the Bill making progress. I was always uneasy about clause 3 and was content for it to be removed.

I appreciate the strength of the arguments about the way in which the Bill will be applied and enforced, and I gave undertakings about making full disclosure of the facts so that we should know how many people were arrested in each police area, how many prosecutions arose on those facts — a comparison of those figures would show whether arrests were being made only for the independent prosecution service not to be prepared to turn them into prosecutions — the number of prosecutions and the acquittal rate. All those would be sensitive indicators of whether the law was being correctly enforced.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West also asked whether arrangements could be made to ensure that our thorough and useful debate in Committee about whether the use of the word "persistently" would or would not inhibit clause 1 having its full effect was considered in another place. I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. I shall make it my business to ensure, so far as it is within my powers to do so, that the other place has the opportunity to consider the amendment to which my hon. Friend is attracted. There are many distinguished Members of the other place with great experience of the law and other issues which emerge naturally in considering a measure such as this. I believe that they will have ample opportunity to go over the ground, as we did in Committee, and obviously we shall look at the result of their deliberations with great interest.

I remain of the view, as the Criminal Law Revision Committee was, that the reason for proposing a clause 1 which is distinct from clause 2 is that the only way to end the menace of kerb crawling is to send out a clear message that any act of kerb crawling renders an individual liable to prosecution. It also remains my view—it is also the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Drake—that the importation of the word "persistently" would weaken that clear message that we wished to send out.

I know that the sponsor of the Bill in another place will argue that the word "persistently" should stay out of the Bill, but it is just as important to know what is a reasonable ground for argument as it is to know one's own mind. I am quite clear that it is a very important topic. It involved five hours of consideration in Committee, and I hope very much that the debate in the House of Lords will cast further light on an important area of the Bill.

I do not wish to add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Drake said about new clause 8, but I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the latitude to welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Derby-shire, West said, to agree with his proposal as a step forward, and to hope that that step forward will commend itself to the House and that in the time remaining to us today we shall be able to send the Bill on its way to the other place.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Southampton, Itchen)

With leave of the House, perhaps I may be allowed to add a final comment.

I am present today to support the Bill, and I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) was not able to be present to hear the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) accepting the feeling of the House about his extensive observations last week on the word "persistently". I am sure that the appropriate way to proceed is for the amendment on that matter to be considered in detail in the other place. My hon. Friend said last week that he did not intend to talk out the Bill. I am grateful to him for his statement this morning that he is prepared to see the matter considered in the other place rather than the Bill being rejected in this House.

I hope that what we have heard so far this morning augurs well for the progress of the Bill and that it will be considered by the other place in good time during the present Session.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope), I am delighted that the Bill is being considered again today. I am especially pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) has been able to contribute to its progress by offering a palm leaf to the Bill's supporters. The failure of the Bill to complete its Report stage last week gave rise to a great deal of concern among my constituents in Leicester, where kerb crawling is a serious problem, and I regretted that I was unable to attend that debate. However, I am certain that the progress of the Bill today, beginning with the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West, will reassure my constituents that there is a great chance of the Bill reaching the statute book. I know that the people of London and Southampton also have experience of the problems caused by kerb crawling and that they, too, are looking forward to the Bill completing its Report stage today.

Question put and negatived.

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