HC Deb 20 June 1988 vol 135 cc925-30

As amended, again considered.

Question again proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.

Ms. Richardson

Before the hon. Lady goes down this road, she should discuss the matter with some of the people who have to operate our prisons and who would not welcome her move.

Mrs. Maureen Hicks

Although I have not been to Holloway, I have discussed this problem with other prison officers. I hope that that reassures the hon. Lady.

Ms. Richardson

The hon. Lady may reassure me, but she does not tell me what they said. I am not convinced that they will have said, "Yes, yes, please. We would open our doors if you would propose in Parliament a clause making custodial offences and institutionalising and soliciting once more."

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone)

Is it not more likely that prison governors would say that they are worried about the overcrowding of prisons in general, but would not express a view about certain types of offences, which are extremely serious to those who suffer from them, if not to those who represent happier constituencies? Have prison governors truly said that there are certain offences for which they do not wish to see imprisonment, rather than speak in general about the numbers?

Ms. Richardson

In the discussions that I have had with the prison officers, I have not heard that view expressed. I have not heard that they would think it was a good idea to overcrowd their prisons with women convicted of what many of them would regard as a trivial offence. Many prison officers are overstretched in looking after people who have committed serious offences. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East has mentioned people who live in areas where there is prostitution, but prostitution is a victimless crime. It is not a crime from which somebody who is involved in its operation actually suffers. The hon. Lady would have done her constituents a better service by examining some of the reasons why women are driven into prostitution.

By and large, women go into prostitution because they are poor and because the Government have taken away such economic power as they had—they did not have much before. Women who are single parents, white women, single women, black women, young women and even older women, women who are hit by poor housing, large gas and electricity bills, the inability to care for their families, by the depression which overcomes them because they cannot support their children in the way that they want to do, turn to prostitution. It would become the hon. Lady much better if she recognised that women are the majority of the low paid in this country and in the world. If she asked the Government to adopt policies that did not hit women so hard and instead supported the work that women are trying to do, training schemes for women and women who want to earn a living, she would do a much better service to the constituents who complained to her about the problems caused by prostitution. Instead, the hon. Lady attacks prostitutes, and that will not achieve what she wants.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

The hon. Lady seems to be concentrating on female prostitution. Does she believe that male prostitution is no problem?

Ms. Richardson

I believe that male prostitution is a problem as well. Insofar as I know much about it, often young male prostitutes are driven into prostitution through the lack of money. I have concentrated on women because it happens to be my job to speak for women on behalf of the Opposition, but I am not denying that there are male prostitutes. As I have said, I am sure that many of them have been driven into prostitution because they are poor, badly trained or lack training. If they are poorly trained or untrained, they will lack the ability to take on a variety of jobs. That is something that should be tackled by the Government. The Government should be encouraging employers to pay decent wages.

Many young girls, young women and young boys go to large cities, in some instances to find jobs. Others wish to get away from difficult home circumstances. Such young people cannot always find jobs. They are often driven into prostitution because they are ill trained and cannot find the variety of jobs that should be available to them to choose from.

Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

Does my hon. Friend agree that in some respects the state is pimping on prostitutes? I used to be a visiting teacher at Holloway prison, where I met prostitute women who could not pay the huge fines that were being demanded of them repeatedly. They were often single mothers who went on the game because they could not pay the bills. When they were fined repeatedly, there was no way that they could come off it. We need a better benefit system so that these women will not get in that mess in the first place.

Ms. Richardson

I was about to talk about older women but, first, I shall address myself specifically to young girls.

Prostitution is a tragedy for girls and young women. However, my hon. Friend is right. I do not have any statistics, but it is probably true that the majority of prostitutes have children and have homes to look after. The only way that they can obtain a decent income is to go on the game. They cannot look to the social security system for that income. I do not think that that is a good thing, but the choice is theirs. I wish that they would find other courses of action preferable so that they could make their contribution in a different way.

Mr. Bermingham

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest problems when young girls are loose in large cities, if I might put it in that way, is that they often fall prey to the pimp, and once in his hands they are exploited? If the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) were to have her way, many more prostitutes would find their way into prison. The prostitute has to pay the pimp, and if she cannot pay the fine she will end up in prison. She will go to prison rather than default on the pimp, who often has great physical power over her.

Ms. Richardson

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. There are young girls, and presumably young boys too, who are under the power of pimps. They get themselves increasingly into difficulties from which they cannot escape because there is no alternative.

I watched a moving film on television a few weeks ago —I think that it was a repeat—about a husband and wife who were looking for their 15-year-old daughter who had disappeared two years earlier. It was not a documentary. Eventually the father found her in the big city. Although it was not stated explicitly, she was a prostitute. I did not see the problems that faced the father and the problems that faced the daughter that led her to leave home. She wanted to get away and she could not find a job. We know that that happens. We must provide the sort of society that will not cause women to resort to that way of life.

Miss Widdecombe

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way a second time. She has painted a picture of girls who think that they are forced, through economic circumstances, to go on the game, but how do so many single parents who also maintain homes manage not to do that? Will the hon. Lady consider the cumulative nuisance of prostitution rather than stories of young girls who apparently cannot manage when hundreds of thousands of their counterparts can?

Ms. Richardson

I do not know where the hon. Lady has been, but I wish that she would come to my surgery. She is right to say that hundreds of thousands of single parents and women with partners try to manage without becoming prostitutes, but they are doing it with the utmost difficulty. It is a constant problem to pay bills.

I am afraid that the question is rhetorical, but does not the hon. Lady have people coming to her surgery saying that their gas or electricity is about to be cut off, that they are buying cheaper food than they want to buy because they cannot get a job which pays a decent wage or because they cannot get decent income support out of the rotten social security system that has recently been introduced?

The hon. Lady asked why I do not pay attention to the pleas of women constituents of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East. Of course I have sympathy for people who feel that some offence is being committed which is a nuisance to them. All I am saying is that imprisoning them is not a deterrent. They will go to prison and, when they come out, if they still do not have a job or some proper and dignified means of supporting themselves and their families, they will return to prostitution. The hon. Lady is merely ensuring that prisons are fuller than ever. She can be sure that, if magistrates have the option, they will send them straight to prison rather than impose a fine.

We want a decent policy against poverty for men and women. There should be a decent sentencing policy which ensures that the most serious offences are properly punished but that trivial ones are not. That is how to look after the nuisance, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East calls it, caused to some people in some residential areas. Imprisoning the women concerned is not the answer, and I hope either that the hon. Lady will withdraw her new clause or that the House will defeat it.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) has highlighted a considerable social mischief in her constituency, and her constituents will be extremely grateful to her for that, but I cannot commend the new clause to the House. There are four considerations that may influence my hon. Friend and persuade her not to press the clause to a Division.

The first is a slight drafting difficulty. We are not resting on principle today▀×we are dealing with a proposed inclusion in a Bill. The problem with the new clause is that it does not prescribe a maximum penalty of imprisonment.

Mr. Corbett

Life.

Mr. Hogg

As the hon. Gentleman says, there is no upper limit. That causes a slight difficulty, because courts in some areas might impose a 10 or 15-year sentence. That would be within the scope of the new clause, and I do not think that my hon. Friend intended that.

10.15 pm

I shall now deal with the substantive matters. Secondly, this category of offence should not attract a prison sentence. We are trying to confine prison sentences to serious crime—defined, perhaps, as crimes of violence or serious crimes against property. I accept that my hon. Friend has made it plain that prostitution is a serious social mischief, but it is not a crime that should attract a prison sentence. I have no desire for our prisons to be full of prostitutes.

Thirdly, imprisonment has never served as a deterrent to any prostitute. Until 1982 a sentence of imprisonment was available to the courts, and it was also available at the time of the Wolfenden report. Prostitutes roamed the streets, and the courts were full of them. There is no reason to believe that the problem has become worse since then.

The fourth consideration that will weigh with the House, if not with my hon. Friend, is the little matter of sexual equality. If we lock up a number of female prostitutes, what will we do about the rent boys? Surely they will also have to be locked up. The mind boggles at the prospect of Brixton and Pentonville full of rent boys. That would do nothing for good order and discipline. It would also have a serious effect on the incidence of AIDS in prisons— [interruption.] I have even persuaded my hon. Friend the Minister of State, whose name I was about to invoke because he is shortly to publish a consultative document about alternative punishments in the community. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East is understandably worried that prostitutes cannot be sentenced to community service. She may wish to make some representations to my hon. Friend the Minister of State in the context of that consultative document.

Mr. Bermingham

I hope that the Minister is not serious. I know that it is late at night, but this is a serious subject. Those of us who were around in the 1970s will remember that those convicted of prostitution and soliciting were sent to prison, which caused enormous problems. We have sought to avoid any hint of imprisonment, so it has been with great sadness that many of us have noted the use of punitive fines as a backdoor method of imprisonment. I hope that the Minister is suggesting only in a jocular way that community service should be an alternative to imprisonment, because that always carries a penal sanction for breach.

Mr. Hogg

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is being serious. It is important that there is an ultimate sanction against those who persistently and deliberately refuse to pay a fine. It is right that the courts should have the power to impose a sentence of imprisonment on prostitutes in breach. I make no apology for that.

I was explaining to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East that it would be appropriate to make representations in the context of the consultative document. I am not saying that the Government would respond favourably; I am merely responding to a specific comment. My hon. Friend should be aware of her ability to make such representations. I recognise that in Wolverhampton and elsewhere prostitution is a serious social mischief, but I do not believe that imprisonment is a proper solution. I hope that, on reflection, my hon. Friend will not wish to press the clause to a Division.

Mrs. Maureen Hicks

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments, but obviously I am bitterly disappointed. lie has offered few crumbs of comfort to those who must live with the problem. I hope that he will in due course reflect on its seriousness and, in the light of any future escalation, consider the matter further. I also hope that he will monitor the position carefully, with due regard to what I have said.

I suppose that I must thank my hon. Friend at least for telling the people that he intends to issue a consultative document, and I shall of course make myself au fait with the contents. I hope to make a contribution to the arrangements for alternative punishments in the community, as he suggests. In the light of that small but beneficial offer, I shall bow to his judgment and not press the new clause to a Division. I assure him, however, that I intend to monitor the situation carefully, because of my heartfelt sorrow for those who live with it. I have seen the extreme effect that it has on them.

I have tried tonight to highlight the problems of those who suffer, but the problems of prostitutes themselves are a matter for debate on another occasion. I thank my hon. Friend for his courtesy in listening to me.

Question put and negatived.

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