HC Deb 20 June 1988 vol 135 cc921-5

`The court may impose a custodial sentence on a prostitute convicted of soliciting when it does not consider a fine an appropriate deterrent.'.— [Mrs. Maureen Hicks.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Maureen Hicks (Wolverhampton, North-East)

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

I thank Mr. Speaker for judging my new clause worthy of debate. It would restore to the courts the ability to imprison prostitutes found guilty of persistent soliciting where fines have not been considered an effective deterrent. Such is the magnitude of the problem in the town of Wolverhampton, part of which I represent, and the other red light centres that have been regularly featured in some horrific television programmes recently that I felt moved to table this, my first ever, new clause. That surely reflects the gravity of the problem which, I believe, needs to be urgently resolved for the sake of those who live with it on their doorstep.

Had I been called to speak last Thursday evening, I should have expressed my personal fear that, unless the Government took urgent steps to address themselves to the growing problem of street prostitute soliciting and residents living within the same neighbourhood, those directly affected in Wolverhampton would resort to taking the law into their own hands, as people have done in Birmingham in recent months. It is with great sadness that I have to report that on Friday, by sheer coincidence, that is exactly what happened. One group of residents who suffer particularly from the problem had reached the end of their tether. They called a meeting at which they decided to form their own vice patrols to get rid of the problem themselves. In addition, they threatened to withhold payment of their rates. I am glad to say that swift action by the local police in co-operating with them has resolved the problem temporarily. They have agreed to postpone their actions, but warned that if the police fail to get rid of the prostitutes they will go ahead with their plansߞwhich only serves to increase my anxiety.

I ask the House to recognise that the Criminal Justice Act 1982, which removed the option of imprisonment, has proved unsuccessful. Far from having limitedߞlet alone eliminated—the problem of soliciting, the 1982 Act has merely served to increase it. In places such as Wolverhampton it has opened the floodgates to what can only be called a thriving business, to the detriment of local residents who unfortunately now realise that they are living in a town with the reputation of the vice centre of the west midlands.

9.45 Pm

In Wolverhampton, from January to May of this yearߞonly a five-month period—there were 683 arrests, which was nearly the same as the total for 12 months in 1983, the year after imprisonment was removed, when there were only 737. Such high figures speak for themselves, and there are still seven months to go.

This large increase is not confined to my area. Nationally, in 1986, the latest year for which figures are available, 9,098 prostitutes were found guilty of street soliciting. That compares with 1982, when only 5,811 were found guilty. So how can anyone argue that the legislation that we endorsed has succeeded in checking the rise?

It is easy for us, debating statistics in the Chamber, but I am concerned about the human effect on the people who are touched by the problem. They are the people who must live with the problem on their doorsteps night and day, and naturally they are running out of patience. They feel imprisoned: they can no longer live with the problem, but they cannot sell their homes because it would be commercially unrealistic to do so. It might be easy for hon. Members from leafier suburbs, who talk liberally about letting the prostitutes live—as long as they do so in other people's back yards. But if we had to look out of our front windows every day, only to be confronted by prostitutes visibly touting for business, we might see the problem differently. If hon. Ladies knew that when they went to their local bus stop they stood a good chance of being stopped by a kerb crawler who might assume that they were on the game—for that is the assumption made about all ladies in these areas—they might see it differently, too.

How would we feel about bringing up children in an environment in which it is commonplace to see scantily dressed, provocative females, whose appearance is designed to entice and excite would-be customers? I have a nine-year-old child, and I would like to think that he was at home doing his homework or playing with his toys in the evening. So imagine my sadness when Wolverhampton ended up in the national newspapers in a story about a little girl of eight who had been enticed by a prostitute to become involved in sexual activity with a male customer.

I hear reports from residents of 13-year-old boys being used as pimps to stop kerb crawlers and get them round the corner to do business with prostitutes.

Often, things must be seen to be believed. In the early days, when I was a candidate, I thought that the problem might be exaggerated and I made up my mind to go out on a night patrol with the vice squad for a complete shift. That experience convinced me that if I ever got into the House, however unpopular the subject might be, it would be my duty to do something about the most serious problem that confronts my town. What I saw that night on patrol was an absolute farce. The prostitutes seemed to mushroom as the night went on and the police were forced to take them in. The police were so regularly taking them in that they were on Christian name terms. They laughed at me, assuming that I must also be on the game. The police knew that within half an hour of paying a small fine the prostitutes would be back on the streets trying to get business.

Prostitutes know that the courts have at their disposal only a modest fine to impose, and the police say that, if the fines do anything, they encourage the prostitutes to work even harder. As the House knows, mounting fines are commonplace, and only two years ago Birmingham recorded that it had £40,000 worth of outstanding fines! On that patrol night the prostitutes were laughing and saw the whole thing as a joke. We had to break off playing cat and mouse round the streets to look for two young children who had been missing for days. It increased the seriousness of the matter for me when the police had to stop looking for those children because they were needed again in the vice squad area. That brought home to me whether this was the best use of police resources in a town that puts many demands on its police. But obviously we have a duty to answer the demands of the people who have to live with the problem.

The time has come for the House to recognise that we might not have known best and that fines are not a deterrent. We have frustrated police officers, frustrated magistrates, frustrated residents and a frustrated council all of whom feel that they are banging their heads against a brick wall. In addition, magistrates now lack the power to impose even a community service order. They could have done that when imprisonment was an option. It may sound strange to the House when I say that it is considered that community service orders were used successfully in the past.

Time prevents me from developing arguments about the role of the pimp and other matters, but I should like to pose some questions. We have in my town a vigilant police force and a chief superintendent who recognises the priority of the problem. He has increased manpower accordingly, often at the expense of other areas. That police force is frustrated and engaged on a soulless task, and the only penalty is a fine. If the fear of AIDS and drug-related problems has no effect, if improved lighting and road management schemes have merely served often to move people from one street to the other when roads have been blocked off, if the Sexual Offences Act 1985, which made kerb-crawling an offence in the hope that it would reduce the problem, and if letters sent to the families of known kerb-crawlers and publicity have failed to contain, let alone reduce, the problem, we have a duty to legislate immediately to provide a deterrent, to give the police the back-up for which they are crying out and to improve the quality of life for long-suffering residents.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Is the hon. Lady aware that since the law was changed in 1983 to make soliciting not an imprisonable offence more prostitutes have ended up in prison because they have been unable to pay the fines?

Mrs. Hicks

I am aware of that, but I am also aware that it has become a farce in Birmingham. Prostitutes on whom mounting fines have been imposed merely sit at the back of the court for an hour or two, and that is the end of £400, £500 or £600 worth of fines. I cannot agree that it has proved to be a deterrent. First, the Minister must say to prostitutes that if they continue to cock a snook at the law they will face imprisonment.

Secondly, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to review the kerb-crawling legislation in the light of two years' experience as, to date, it has proved very difficult to enforce. Police officers invariably talk of having pages of evidence and of following kerb-crawlers for hours, yet those kerb-crawlers are still let off because there is difficulty in defining what constitutes the word "persistent".

Given the number of kerb-crawlers that must be around, as it takes both a prostitute and a customer to participate in an activity, we must ask why so few men are being prosecuted. Although we have been successful in Wolverhampton in 1986–87, during which time 47 kerb-crawlers were prosecuted, how is it that, in London, which has the biggest problem, but where only one third of all prosecutions for prostitution come from the Metropolitan police area, a grand total of only three kerb-crawlers were convicted in 1986? The total national figure, in the light of that law which was intended to deter, reveals only 189 prosecutions in England and Wales and 161 convictions.

Thirdly, I ask my hon. Friend to give further consideration to community orders as another possibility for deterring persistent offenders.

I hope that the Minister will have taken on board the seriousness and urgency of my case. It might be worth considering that, in 1959, when such blatant street soliciting existed, it was considered that the normal, decent citizen should be able to go about the streets without affront to his or her decency. To achieve that, it was agreed that imprisonment would be introduced as an option to the courts for persistent offenders. The sharp fall in street soliciting after that decision, I believe, speaks for itself.

Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) is, in my opinion and that of my party, going down a dangerous road in proposing the new clause. I shall read the report of her speech with care tomorrow, but I did not catch a word about the causes of prostitution and the reasons why women go into prostitution, nor did I catch very many words about the role of men in that, except in her reference to the lack of prosecutions for kerb-crawling.

In 1983, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) mentioned, Parliament took a progressive step in attempting to keep women out of prison by imposing fines rather than custodial sentences. I well recall the successfully persuasive words of a member of the hon. Lady's party, who is no longer a Member of this House—Mr. Matthew Parris—who argued that soliciting should not be an imprisonable offence. Since that came into force, more women have been put in prison for prostitution, but under the guise of unpaid fines, than were in prison for the offence of soliciting. If the hon. Lady consults her figures, I am sure that she will be able to confirm that.

I am sorry that that is happening because I do not believe that it is right to put those women in prison and I do not believe that it is a deterrent. The hon. Lady's proposal is a backward step and will increase overcrowding in our already overcrowded prisons. The hon. Lady wants to institutionalise that trend by transferring the non-payment of fines sentence into a sentence for soliciting. I hope that the House will resist her proposal.

Has the hon. Lady been to Holloway prison recently? I suggest that she goes there. It is extremely overcrowded, as are other women's prisons. If she talked to the governor and the prison officers, she would find that they would not welcome what she is proposing, because they are having enough difficulty in coping with the prison population, which includes many women on remand. Apart from the women who are imprisoned for serious offences, there are a number of women in Holloway who are imprisoned for trivial offences, such as shoplifting. This is not the best way to deal with such offences. Before the hon. Lady puts into the minds of magistrates that they have the option, which many of them would useߞߞ

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.