HC Deb 12 January 1989 vol 144 cc1092-8

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

10.15 pm
Sir William Shelton (Streatham)

Prostitution is an unpleasant matter to raise in the House. It is even more unpleasant for my constituents. Over the past few years, a plague—a pollution—has struck a part of my constituency. Certain streets have become red light areas. At night, they swarm with prostitutes. I accept that that is not unique to Streatham, although it is unique to the residents there.

I read the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) during the proceedings on the Criminal Justice Bill on 20 June. She mentioned similar problems that her constituents face. I felt deep sympathy for her, and especially for her constituents. Unless one lives in the area, one cannot appreciate local residents' acute distress caused by such a plague. I ask the House to imagine what it is like every evening for one who lives there. A local resident said: The noise is endless as the cars screech round the roads, viewing the prostitutes as they stand on the corners. The noise of the prostitutes screaming among themselves or at their clients. The pimps and their cars; the harassment of residents as they walk down their own streets. Then, every morning, residents must take a broom to sweep away condoms from behind garages.

The residents have mentioned cars on the roads. Last June, local inhabitants took a traffic count. On one quiet evening in one quiet residential avenue which I know well, during the rush hour, between 5 and 6 in the evening, 36 cars passed down that avenue. Between 10 and 11 that night, 127 cars passed down that avenue.

What is being done? Since April of last year, the local police have formed a vice squad. It has a sergeant and three officers. They do not have their own van at their disposal. They must call for the station van if they wish to arrest a prostitute. Nevertheless, in 1987, 239 prostitutes were arrested and prosecuted; and in 1988, 803 prostitutes were arrested and prosecuted, and 180 kerb crawlers were arrested and prosecuted.

The police send letters to the homes of those kerb crawlers whose car numbers have been taken by residents. The letter asks the reason why the car was there and who was driving it. I take this opportunity to warn all kerb crawlers that if they come to Streatham they may well be arrested and prosecuted. They may well find on their breakfast table a letter from the police asking why their car was being driven around on a certain night. What is more, at least some of the girls have been diagnosed as having AIDS, and a greater number have been diagnosed as having highly infectious hepatitis B. I say to all kerb crawlers, "Do not come to Streatham." Despite all this, the situation has not improved, so more must be done.

First, I have nothing but praise for the local police. They are doing an excellent job with the resources at their disposal. As I said, they have a vice squad of four. Tooting, which was a similar red light area in Wandsworth, up Balham hill, has a vice squad of eight—two sergeants and six policemen—with its own van. I understand that it is a matter of manpower allocation formula and that Tooting and Streatham come under different police areas. This is not a matter for the Government but for the police, but surely we should have similar strength in Streatham as in Tooting, where the problem has abated, perhaps due to the police. When the police in Tooting are not over-stretched, could they not co-operate across the borders so that the Tooting police could help the Streatham police?

Secondly, the maximum fine for the conviction of a prostitute is £100 but the average fine imposed last year was about £35. The police tell me that, within 90 minutes of the prostitute being taken to the police station she is out on bail and back on the street. Many of them make £400 or £500 a night. I wish that the magistrates who impose those fines understood the breakdown in law and order that those people cause in the community. There is nothing romantic about prostitutes and what they do to the lives of the residents of the areas they inhabit.

Maximum fines should be increased, if only to encourage magistrates to impose more realistic fines. I suspect that the £100 fine has remained unchanged for many years, and surely it should be increased. The argument that, if the fine were increased, it would drive the girls to ply their trade harder must be invalid. It it were true, it would apply to any thief or fraudster; one would say that they should not be fined harshly, because they would commit the same crime again. If the prostitutes are back on the job again after 90 minutes, they could not work harder anyway.

The maximum fine for a kerb crawler is £400, but the 108 who were convicted were fined an average of £100. I should like to see stiffer fines for kerb crawlers. Might it be possible to see whether those convicted of kerb crawling could be banned from driving for three months? There is no doubt that kerb crawling is a driving offence. Such people drive slowly, stopping and starting, and sounding their horns, and they do not pay attention to the road.

Thirdly, the police tell me that they can do little about prosecuting pimps with much hope of conviction because they have to prove that they are living off immoral earnings. It is not difficult to prove that a madam or a pimp is running a brothel. However, if they are minding —God help us—two or three girls on the street, it is well nigh impossible to prove. Even if the police see a girl handing money to that wretched person and they are both arrested, they will say that the pimp is the woman's banker and is merely holding the money for her until the next day. The law should be looked at.

Perhaps it might be possible to swing the balance of proof on to the man, to make him show that he came by the money honestly and that it is not from immoral earnings. I also wonder whether the Inland Revenue might look more closely at those people. They are well known to the police but cannot be convicted.

Fourthly, the Sexual Offences Act 1985 introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) is an excellent Act. The problem is that, under it, a kerb crawler commits an offence only if he solicits a woman persistently. If he is kerb crawling to pick up a prostitute, he will not have to solicit persistently. Therefore, that part of the Act is invalid and I am not sure whether any kerb crawler has been prosecuted successfully under it. I understand that no one has been in Streatham.

The reason why 108 kerb crawlers were prosecuted last year in Streatham is that the police used the second part of the Act, which says that a kerb crawler also commits an offence if he causes annoyance to other persons in the neighbourhood. That means that the unfortunate residents must sit behind their windows with a pencil and paper noting car number plates, and report them to the police, who then stop the car after it has been round a few times and charge the man. Surely that is not what an honest citizen should have to do to help the police to secure a conviction.

I hope that at some time in the not too distant future, advantage will be taken of a Criminal Justice Bill to modify the wording of the Act, so that kerb crawlers can be successfully prosecuted because they are soliciting, rather than because they are a nuisance to the neighbourhood. This must impose such a burden on the residents. My hon. Friend the Member for Drake told me that she did not want to include the word "persistently" but was obliged to do so in Committee, or the Bill might have fallen.

Fifthly, a good traffic management scheme is vital to control kerb crawlers. In the 1987 election, the then leader of Lambeth council descended on the area and pledged such a scheme for the residents. Some lighting has been put up, but the traffic management scheme has not been implemented. I urge Lambeth council and the residents to move as quickly as possible to implement it. I understand that at last the money will be available after April, and I hope that it is quickly put to use.

Finally, the power to send prostitutes to gaol was removed in 1982. Many people believe that that opened the floodgates to soliciting, but I should be reluctant for us to return to sending prostitutes to prison. We all feel that too many people are sent to gaol, but if the Home Office introduces electronic tagging, surely it would be a suitable option for persistent offenders. It would serve as a curfew and keep prostitutes indoors from dusk to dawn. That would be a good solution to the problem.

We must remove the burden of this problem from my constituents and those in other parts of the country. It is a great burden, which is why I have brought the subject before the House in this Adjournment debate.

10.29 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

It is good to have the chance to reply to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) so soon after the honour paid to him, on which the whole House congratulates him. I must also congratulate him on the persistent and assiduous way in which he has represented his constituents in trying to deal with this problem, which must be the most appalling nuisance to those of his constituents who live in the affected areas.

Undoubtedly, no one could have done more than my hon. Friend in recent months to try to ensure that the lessons from other parts of the country that may be of use in Streatham are applied there, and no one could have put more pressure on the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and myself to seek improvements on behalf of his constituents. He has made a highly constructive speech with a list of positive suggestions; in an Adjournment speech, one does not always hear such a constructive list of suggestions to which to reply.

Prostitutes plying for trade and clients looking for them undoubtedly create a serious nuisance for local residents; my hon. Friend and I agree wholly on that point. I also agree that local residents should not be expected to tolerate it. For some time, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have been trying to find ways to alleviate this most difficult problem. Prostitution will always be with us, and it is an exceptionally difficult issue with which to deal. It is often a matter of controlling it rather than eradicating it, as I am sure my hon. Friend recognises.

That is not to say that individual residents or the residents of whole streets in my hon. Friend's constituency or the constituency of our hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks), whose speech we listened to in the dying moments of the Report stage of the Criminal Justice Bill last summer, should have to put up with the problem. We must consider what the Government can do and what the police can do, in co-operation with the local community.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

On the question of control, will my hon. Friend the Minister give his observations on what my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) said about several prostitutes who are suffering from AIDS or HIV infection and plying their trade in Streatham? That represents a serious risk. What is the Government's view on that? Is there anything that my hon. Friend thinks can be done?

Mr. Patten

That is a matter to which my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham has drawn my attention, and I shall, of course, be drawing it to the attention of those responsible at the Department of Health. If my hon. Friend is implying that the Government should seek, as a matter of policy, to make plying for trade as a prostitute, for example, a criminal offence to a greater degree if the prostitute has AIDS, hepatitis B, gonorrhoea or syphilis, that is an appealing argument, but it raises a difficult question: there is a substantial danger of driving those with such diseases underground and out of the ambit of those who can bring them help.

The advice that we receive from the chief medical officer and others is that one should seek to identify those who have these conditions and try to obtain for them the medical help that they need. However, the matter is of deep concern and we keep it under review. I am not trying, as a Minister, to get out of giving a straight answer by saying "we shall keep it under review". We are reviewing what should he done all the time. That has dealt with one of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham in his litany of constructive suggestions.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the level of manpower devoted to prostitution in the Streatham division: his figures are almost identical to mine. I am advised that there is now a dedicated team of one sergeant and four constables to combat prostitution, but that may change from week to week and month to month. I was not aware of the point that was raised about the van, but I know that the Commissioner recognises the seriousness of the problem in Streatham. As the House knows, the deployment of police manpower is a matter for the Commissioner, and no doubt he will take close account of what my hon. Friend has said tonight, because Hansard's report of his speech will be drawn to his attention.

I can certainly confirm that the figures that my hon. Friend gave for arrests and prosecutions for prostitution in the Streatham division are wholly accurate. It is worth while repeating them because they show that a measure of progress has been made in the past calendar year or so. Although the problem is still severe from the point of view of my hon. Friend's constituents, the police are beginning to have some effect with their targeting strategy. Targeting is very important, and I was delighted that my hon. Friend chose to pay a warm tribute to the local police.

The number of arrests for prostitution in the Streatham division increased from 239 in 1987 to 803 in 1988 and the number of kerb crawlers prosecuted rose from 76 in 1987 to 180 in 1988. In addition, as my hon. Friend said, during 1988 the Streatham division police sent a total of 102 warning letters to motorists who were suspected of being in the area for the purpose of meeting a prostitute. That is a particularly effective way of dealing with kerb crawlers, which is being used not only in Streatham but in other parts of the country where there is a serious problem. For example, all over the west midlands the police have learnt from the kind of techniques that have been developed in Streatham and are using the method of sending rather obvious letters—to put it mildly—to kerb crawlers. The Government entirely applaud the Metropolitan police on their efforts.

There are some important points to be made about the maximum fines for soliciting and kerb crawling. Under the Street Offences Act 1959, introduced almost 30 years ago now, the maximum penalty for soliciting is £100 for a first conviction, although it is £400 for a second or subsequent conviction. That is exactly the same sum as the maximum penalty under the Sexual Offences Act 1985.

My hon. Friend has complained on his constituents' behalf about what they consider to be the low level of fines sometimes applied by the local magistracy. Magistrates are appointed from the community, and I dare say that they try to reflect as far as possible the views of the community. It is not for me or for the Government to criticise the magistracy, but it is important that the views of my hon. Friend's constituents are brought home to those who sit on the local bench. Of course, magistrates have to weigh up a number of other issues as well. The decision on the fine in each case is a matter not for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary or me but for the courts.

There are certainly regular complaints about the low level of fines imposed by the courts, which may sometimes be due to the difficulty that they face in trying to establish whether a prostitute has the means to pay a higher fine, and courts may also be aware that high fines are likely to encourage some offenders into further offences to pay them off or result in offenders being committed to prison for the non-payment of fines. My hon. Friend is right to say that the mere act of prostitution is no longer an imprisonable offence, but non-payment of fines can and sometimes does lead to imprisonment.

The level of fines needs to be debated publicly, and I dare say that the contents of tonight's debate will be drawn to the attention of those in Streatham responsible for the criminal justice system and that those who sit on the local benches will ponder my hon. Friend's remarks. We are dealing with nuisances here. They may be dreadful nuisances, but we are not generally talking about violence—although I realise that prostitution may attract violence—or about serious dishonesty.

I should like prostitutes to be hit harder in their pockets. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are looking for better ways of achieving that, although it is very difficult. One way of driving prostitutes off the streets is police targeting. Another way is to hit them hard in the pocket when the police have brought a prosecution successfully. There are a variety of ways of doing this.

My hon. Friend also raised the interesting point of disqualification from driving as a possible sanction against kerb crawlers. That disqualification offence was thought up so that the courts could remove bad drivers from the road. It may also be used, of course—but only by the Crown courts and not by magistrates—for offenders who use motor vehicles to commit serious offences, such as armed robbery. It would be difficult to envisage presently, in any event, disqualification from driving as a penalty for kerb crawling, however much of a nuisance kerb crawlers are.

On the important issue of living off immoral earnings, I wonder whether the proposal to create an offence of receiving immoral earnings in pursuit of immoral earnings would be the answer. Some interesting proposals have been put forward by the Criminal Law Revision Committee for the repeal of the existing offence and its replacement by three offences intended to deal specifically with people who organise prostitution, which may be a better route.

After those particular points, I must tell my hon. Friend that I share his view that the persistence requirement in the 1985 Act to which he referred does indeed reduce its effectiveness. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary feels the same. We are conducting a review of the Act in the Home Office, and we are looking at ways of strengthening it. However, it is quite clear from what my hon. Friend has said that the Streatham police, by using the second part of the provision, are being quite successful in bringing prosecutions, on which I congratulate them.

I know that some people are under the misapprehension—I should like to take this opportunity to clear that up—that kerb crawling can only happen from a motor car. Subject to the persistence requirement, it is an offence already under the 1985 Act to, as it were, kerb crawl on foot, from a bicycle or in any other manner, which again is something that I believe is not widely appreciated.

My hon. Friend was right to suggest that jail sentences for those who are prostitutes are not the answer. I had not heard before tonight of what to me is a novel and, if I may say so, exceptionally interesting suggestion—the electronic monitoring of offenders. As my hon. Friend probably knows, we are setting up this summer a pilot scheme to test the electronic tagging of offenders on remand. We shall be using it to reduce the remand population, to be put on bail. If that proves to be successful as a means of enforcing a curfew, we may look at the possibility of wider applications.

I am only speculating, but, if some future Criminal Justice Act or other legislative vehicle by some other name made electronic monitoring possible, I could see that a sentence ordered by the court to someone who was a persistent kerb crawler could involve a number of elements—for example, a fine, some community service work and also a period of six months or a year of curfew in their own homes between say, 7 o'clock at night and 7 o'clock in the morning, which I believe would meet many of my hon. Friend's needs. I am grateful to him, because I had not thought of it in the context of the persistent kerb crawler, and we shall consider that.

Prostitution will never be eliminated. Vigorous enforcement of the law, difficult though it is, will help, but, of course, it may also drive the problem from one area to another, which is what is known in the research trade—for people interested in this—as the "displacement problem". That has already happened. My hon. Friend has referred to the vigorous attacks on the prostitution problem on the Tooting side of the common, displacing perhaps to a certain extent the problem to the other side of the common in Streatham. The Tooting police are devoting considerable activities and resources in trying to deal with the problem. It is now up to the Streatham police to respond with equal vigour, which I believe they are doing.

I greatly regret the way in which the local council has dragged its feet in implementing a traffic management scheme to deal with this problem on the lines of the successful one in Tooting, which would restrict the flow of motor vehicles in the evenings. It would have wide public support. I understand that, at long last, the borough is thinking of doing something about it and that there will be a public meeting. It should have done something a long time ago, because I believe it will help greatly to improve the problem. The council should get on with it and make its own contribution to dealing with the problems on its patch. I am disappointed with the rate of action so far.

I hope that the sort of techniques and the increased police targeting in the area will bring a much happier situation to the residents of Streatham in 1989 than they experienced in 1988 or 1987. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his efforts on their behalf.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.