§ Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [11 May],—That the Bill be now read the Third time.
§ Question again proposed.1.15 pm
§ Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)
The period since we last discussed the Bill has allowed some debate in the media, not all of which was useful or well informed. It has also allowed a considerable amount of correspondence which I and, I am sure, other hon. Members have received. I should like to tell the House about some of the objections and letters of support that I have received and draw attention to some press coverage.
I am sure that many hon. Members who wished initially to support the legislation might change their minds in the light of the information that has come to me. In the earlier debate, as we worked our way through the amendments, the Minister of State, Home Office, who I am glad to see in his place, made several offers in an attempt to win support for the legislation. Time and again he asked hon. Members for examples of where the existing legislation, which the Bill seeks to amend, has resulted in mistaken convictions.
As a result of the publicity arising from my intervention in the earlier debate, three men contacted me—one by phone and two by letter. They said that even under the existing legislation, which restricts the use of the word "persistent", they had been wrongly convicted. Some hon. Members may say that those men are clearly guilty and just protesting their innocence, and that we should not pay too much attention to them.
The people who wrote to me did so in interesting circumstances. The press coverage that followed our previous debate on the subject made it seem that the Bill was dead for ever and a day. Therefore, the people who wrote to me did so in the expectation that the Bill would not come back for further debate and that the matter was effectively closed. For that reason they were able to be particularly honest in writing letters of support, or objecting to the action that I had taken. They assumed that what they said would not influence what would happen in future.
We should pay some attention to the proposals of the three men who contacted me. The existing legislation leads to wrongful convictions, which are extremely damaging to the reputations of the people concerned. As the Bill seeks to remove the word "persistent", which will lead to an increase in convictions—if we are to believe the speeches of the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton), who has put that forward as the reason for proceeding with the Bill —it follows that there will be an increase in the number of wrongful convictions.
I shall not give the names of the people concerned because if I did so reporters from The Sun and the Daily Express would be on their doorstep before the hour was out. However, I would be quite happy to give the letters to the hon. Member for Streatham or to pass them to the Home Office. I may do that in any case to find out whether these people have been wrongly convicted and whether the stain with which they live can be removed.
I do not want to detain the House for longer than necessary, and for that reason I shall deal with only one of the three people who contacted me. I have selected a letter at random. It states:
1287Dear Mr. Livingstone, Your speech during the debate on the report stage of the Sexual Offences Bill earned my full support and gratitude, in that I was recently the subject of a wholly unwarranted police prosecution for the offence of kerb-crawling. Without being cautioned, let alone arrested, I received a summons to appear in court to be bound over to keep the peace. My solicitor"—I shall not give the name—
then furnished evidence to the police, with the altogether legitimate reason for my being in that place at that time. The hearing has now been postponed till October. In my opinion, it should never have been instigated in the first place. The fact that it is possible to be stopped and arbitrarily summonsed without any kind of preamble seems like a flagrant violation of the individual's rights and to have really frightening implications. I much appreciated the stand you took against the Sexual Offences Bill. I intend to fight this already oppressive regime where it affects me directly, but if there is any way in which I can assist you in your parliamentary battle, I will be very pleased to make my contribution.If that has already happened, the House should have cause for concern. Here we have a case where someone received a summons out of the blue. He was not stopped by the police or cautioned. He could not say there and then what he was doing in the area. I find that extremely disturbing.
We are all aware that it would be impossible to extend the Bill to Scotland. It would be completely out of line with Scottish law and legal precedent. That is true of almost every other western European nation which has a Bill of Rights or written constitution.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's desire to find a proper balance between the liberties of the innocent citizen and the need to protect women against harassment. But if he feels that the Bill is at fault on that count and criticises it, he should suggest what might be done to put the Bill right.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I am perfectly prepared to do that. I shall rearrange my notes and come to that point immediately, if it helps the hon. Member.
The House knows that I am not a lawyer. Often the law and the language of the law mean different things to lay persons and lawyers. Perhaps my argument will carry more weight if I draw the attention of the House to page 659 of the New Law Journal issued on Friday 11 May this year. It devoted an article to the legal consequences of the Bill. Interestingly, rather than saying what is wrong with the legislation, it takes up the point that the hon. Gentleman made. It points to where we could tackle the problem under the existing powers, if the Government have the political will to do so and if they make the resources available.
The article shows what lawyers think of the legislation and makes positive proposals for an immediate assault on the problem in the areas affected. It is headed "Guilty until proven innocent" and it says:
Kerb-crawling legislation extends to men some of the biases the prostitution laws inflict on women. In the same way as police evidence alone is enough to convict women of loitering and soliciting, it is enough to convict men of kerb-crawling. The need for corroboration is purposely left out of the law on the grounds that witnesses would be reluctant to give evidence. Giving evidence is always hard, but it is crucial to establish the truth and protect the rights of defendants. The red-light residents in whose name loitering, soliciting and kerb-crawling legislation were introduced have never had to substantiate their allegations.The prostitution laws create the much vilified red-light areas by making it almost impossible for prostitute women 1288 and clients to contact each other without breaking the law. Abolition of these laws would allow women to work from premises and advertise in contact magazines without being charged with brothel-keeping, thus undermining the need for red light areas.That was the first positive proposal.
All the letters that I have received on the matter are from people who live in red-light areas. It is also noticeable that all the hon. Members who have been active in the debate and who have supported the hon. Member for Streatham represent areas or constituencies adjacent to areas where a red-light district makes life intolerable for residents.
The proposal in the New Law Journal is relevant and something which the Government could push through the legislative process with the overwhelming support of both sides of both Houses of Parliament. It would remove the prostitution laws. It would decriminalise prostitution so that women could work from home. There would be greater safety for the women and entire areas would not be blighted. The law would withdraw from an area which involves, as I suspect many police officers would say in private, victimless crime. When police resources are directed to victimless crime they are removed, of course, from crimes where there are victims.
§ Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)
Would the hon. Gentleman be prepared to have a legalised brothel in his constituency? How would he propose to compensate house owners who happen to live next door to a woman who is operating as a professional prostitute?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
The Question before the House is whether the Bill should be given a Third Reading, and a Third Reading debate must relate to the contents of the Bill.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I am caught, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by the narrow remit of the debate. At the same time, Conservative Members want me to set out the options.
I have represented areas in which there have been red-light districts. Those areas would be affected and would come within the terms of the Bill. From 1977 to 1981 I was a member of the Greater London council. I represented Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, which had a red-light area round Finsbury park. It is the sort of area at which the Bill is aimed directly. I spent a considerable amount of time negotiating with local residents. At that time the idea of legislation to stop kerb crawling was seven or eight years away. It had not been thought of and consequently it was not being promoted. I had to respond to tremendous pressure from residents whose lives were intolerable. The most appallingly offensive comments were being made by kerb crawlers as they drove round the red light area of Finsbury park. Working under what was then a Conservative administration—I was an opposition member of the GLC under Sir Horace Cutler—we devised a road scheme which meant that someone required an honours degree from Oxford to be able to drive through the areas and find his way out. That provided some limited relief.
In proposing that the Bill should be enacted, the hon. Member for Streatham said that schemes of the sort to which I have just referred have not worked. He argued that they merely move the problem to another area. The hon. Gentleman is seeking a blanket power that could be used throughout the country and would enable the kerb crawler to be targeted. As I said, the people of Hackney, North 1289 and Stoke Newington have been subjected to incredibly offensive experiences by kerb crawlers. They feel that the House should find a way to end the problem.
It is argued in the New Law Journal—there is specific reference to the Bill—that we shall create a power so wide and so sweeping that far too many genuinely innocent people will be caught by the Bill if it is enacted. Innocent people will be destroyed by it. They will be unable to recover and to live a normal life. The article states:The Government has done the opposite"—that is to decriminalise prostitution—It is backing Sir William Shelton's Sexual Offences Bill now going through Parliament which seeks to tighten kerb-crawling legislation by further increasing police powers. The Bill proposes to remove from the 1985 Act the only legal constraint against false arrest: that kerb-crawling should be 'persistent or likely to cause annoyance or nuisance'.That is the heart of the Bill.
The article continues:The case of the Guildford Four and of Hassan Khan (a black man whose conviction was quashed following the disbanding of the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad) have shown the dangers of convictions that are based solely on the word of the police. They are also an indication that the police are more likely to use any new powers against black, Irish, immigrant and other working-class men they may want to charge for quite unconnected purposes.In 1984, we initiated the Campaign Against Kerb Crawling Legislation—a coalition of anti-rape, black and civil rights organisations, AIDS prevention groups, lawyers, probation officers and Labour Party activists. We predicted that the Bill would become a new 'sus' law. In response, the House of Lords introduced the requirement of persistence which Shelton's Bill wants dropped. Its removal would mean that any street exchange between a woman and a man could be criminalised, especially, but not only, if the woman is a prostitute.CAKCL argued that kerb-crawling legislation would add to prostitute and other women's vulnerability to violence by: forcing working women further underground; curtailing the time available for prostitute women to 'sus out' clients nervous about arrest before going with them; committing more police time and resources to prostitution rather than rape and other violent crimes.That is a telling argument against the Bill from the legal community. Although the Bill is narrow and removes only one word from the existing 1985 legislation, its ramifications are wide.
The New Law Journal continues:
Women in Bristol, Leicester, Manchester, Swindon, Walsall and the London red-light areas of Balham, Bayswater and King's Cross, have confirmed an increase in violence which the police have done little or nothing about. A typical example is that of a black woman who was almost strangled: when the police arrived they ignored the man sitting across the road and arrested her instead. In King's Cross, special police squads have arrested hundreds of women and men in a combined effort to 'clean up' the area, while failing to act to solve murders and rapes.Women are also being forced to entrap clients. One woman who couldn't refuse outright to be used as bait for fear of arrest, spent all night waving clients on. Other women have been offered immunity if they 'gave the police two kerb-crawlers'.That happens under the existing legislation. Removing the "persistence" requirement makes it all the more likely that such abuses, mistakes and genuine errors will worsen.
The New Law Journal continues:
If the Government were really interested in women's safety, would it have opposed MP Harry Cohen's Bill…to make rape in marriage a crime? The 1986 Public Order Act gives the police wide powers to arrest anyone for 'threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour."'The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) asked what I would do instead. I am talking about 1290 legislation that the Government can use immediately. Instead of passing this Bill, which would create further problems, it would be better if the Government intervened to ensure that the existing legislation—the Public Order Act 1986—was used to crack down on kerb crawling. I repeat the exact words,
threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour.Those provisions cover the points with which the hon. Member for Streatham is trying to deal. Any kerb crawler who approaches a woman on the street and makes offensive, disgraceful and disgusting suggestions is covered by the existing legislation.
I am prepared to give way to the Minister of State if he will intervene to say that, rather than wait for the outcome of this legislation, he will undertake today to send a letter to every chief constable in Britain, drawing their attention to the existing legislation, which gives them the power under the Public Order Act 1986 to arrest any man who approaches women and makes such suggestions, and to gain convictions in such a way that would mean that the evidence could be tested in court, that there would be a proper chance for defence, and that there would be much less risk of innocent people being entrapped.
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman and the promoter of the Bill. I take his point that people are arrested wrongfully. Before betting shops were legalised, that trade was plied on the streets and gave offence to passers-by. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the solution would be to legalise prostitution among adults so that it could take place indoors, away from the public gaze? Moreover, those who seek the services of prostitutes would not be at risk from prosecution.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) must not widen the debate to that extent. I repeat that we are dealing with the Third Reading of the Bill. His remarks must be directed to its contents.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. The House should pay attention to her. Before she became a Member of Parliament her career, like mine, was in local government. She lived close to an area where prostitution is persistent; therefore, she speaks with considerable authority. Since she became a Member of Parliament I have been surprised by the number of times that we have found ourselves in the same Lobby.
The Bill is unnecessary. I regret that the Minister has left the Chamber. I offered to give way to him so that he could say why the Government do not use the existing legislation. The onus is on those who want the Bill to say why the existing legislation does not work. Those who support the Bill complain about the kerb-crawling legislation that was introduced in 1985. They were warned at the time, in this House and in another place, that it would not solve the problem and would lead to wrongful arrests. That legislation has failed. Instead of tinkering with it and making it worse, surely it would be better if the Government used existing legislation that does not attract the same kind of opprobrium, withdrew their support for the Bill and used their powers under the Public Order Act 1986 to give directions to chief constables.
I should like the Home Secretary to issue today a memorandum to chief constables and the Commission of Police of the Metropolis drawing their attention to that legislation and asking them to provide protection for 1291 women on our streets who are harassed not just by kerb crawlers but by lewd and offensive suggestions from workers on building sites. Before we vote to change the law, the Government must tell us why they neglect to use legislation that they pushed through the House against considerable opposition, giving to the police the power to deal with the problem. Why is the House being asked to pass new legislation when much more effective legislation is already on the statute book? It provides checks, balances and safeguards that would prevent wrongful arrests and charges from being made.
I have not referred to many other sections of the article in New Law Journal, but it concludes:
If kerb-crawling legislation is allowed to set a standard of equality between women and men, possession of condoms may be used as evidence of kerb-crawling, further discouraging clients already reluctant to use condoms. Fines against prostitute women may increase to £1,000 to match Shelton's proposal for kerb-crawlers, thereby forcing more women to see more clients to pay higher fines. And any woman or man may be criminalised for carrying condoms —The Sunday Telegraph reported that a woman solicitor who was coming back from abroad was arrested for having condoms in her bag.
§ Mr. Colvin
That is most extraordinary. I thought that the Government's campaign against AIDS—to persuade the public to protect themselves against AIDS—would encourage people to carry condoms and be prepared at all times. I recall a recent television programme by Mr. Dave Allen in which he pointed out—I do not say that he is always right—that when most gentlemen remove their wallets from their pockets, there is always a telltale outline which shows that most gentlemen go round the world fully prepared for the unscheduled event.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I shall watch in future as hon. Members take out their wallets in the Tea Room.
The legislation would worsen the chances of reducing the spread of AIDS by the use of condoms. Those who work with prostitute women and have studied the Bill warn that the pressure on a prostitute to get a client quickly, before that client is arrested for kerb crawling, means that it will be difficult for the prostitute to chat for a while to try to sus out whether the client is a psychopath, to discuss the terms of the arrangement and to make it clear that she is not prepared to get in the car unless the man is prepared to use a condom. The man will be under tremendous fear of being arrested, so he will not want to loiter and talk or discuss the terms. The danger is that there will be less use of condoms as the women will get into cars before they have obtained the assurance that a condom will be used. Therefore, the legislation may increase the spread of AIDS.
In the case to which the New Law Journal drew attention, the woman concerned used that defence in court. I cannot remember the outcome of the case, but it was stressed that the Government are urging everyone to use condoms more frequently, yet the possession of condoms in a handbag in a red-light district is all the evidence that a police officer needs to gain a conviction against a prostitute woman. It is absolute nonsense and the legislation will worsen the bias against the use of condoms that exists in the laws relating to prostitution.
1292 We also have to bear in mind the risks to prostitute women. A prostitute has very little time in which to determine whether someone is a genuine punter or a psychopath. There are a vast number of unsolved murders and brutal attacks on prostitute women. The case of the Yorkshire Ripper illustrated that it is extremely difficult for police to catch random psychopathic killers.
The New Law Journal concludes:
When the rights of prostitute women are trampled on, the rights of others, women and men (the poorest first, of course), are not far behind. The road to equality downwards—between prostitute women and clients, between women and men—is a bottomless pit.The Sexual Offences Bill does not seek to tackle the causes of the problem but simply to increase penalties for kerb crawlers and to make them as punitive as the penalties faced by prostitute women. I have not the slightest doubt, if the legislation becomes law, that the next stage will be legislation to increase the fines on prostitute women to the level of those laid down in the Sexual Offences Bill.
I know that some Conservative Members will not be particularly persuaded by this, but on Tuesday The Guardian carried a most informative article by Jo Grant about the implications of the Bill. After a long introduction which covers the issues that I have already mentioned, Jo Grant comes to the nub of the argument:
However, the bill faces vociferous opposition from an unlikely but well-organised pressure group—the English Collective of Prostitutes. The Collective was formed in 1975 to promote the interests of black and white women working in the sex industry. Its members campaign vigorously from a base at King's Cross Women's Centre in north London. Their aims include the abolition of the prostitution laws, legal and civil rights for prostitutes and economic improvements for women so that no one is forced into prostitution through poverty. Nina Lopez-Jones is the Collective's articulate spokeswoman and leading light. She has written many of the books and pamphlets on the Collective's extensive publications list. She also gives talks to community and women's groups about the Collective and its campaigns.Chief among those at the moment is their opposition to the new Sexual Offences bill. Before the second reading in February, they lobbied key MPs to make their objections known. A particular concern is that the new bill removes the old requirements that a man has to kerb crawl 'persistently' before he can be arrested.Under Sir William Shelton's bill, any man who talks to a woman once could be convicted solely on the evidence of one policeman. The woman would not be required to attend court, so there would be no proof that she was a prostitute. Although it would be unlikely that the police officer had actually heard what was said, his evidence alone could secure a conviction that could ruin a man's life.In virtually any other modern western democracy, such legislation would be unconstitutional. It could not be applied in Scotland, where legal protections and rights are much stronger than in England. In this, as in many other respects, Scotland is well in advance of the rest of the United Kingdom.
The article continues:
The collective are concerned at the power this puts into the hands of the police and fear the bill could be used in an arbitrary and random fashion by unscrupulous officers. It is so open-ended, they feel, that it could soon become a replacement for the notorious 'sus' laws.I remind the House that the campaign against the sus laws continued for a long time and built up massive support. They were a complete anachronism. When they were wiped from the statute book, everyone —both in the legal profession and outside breathed a sigh of relief. I know that the hon. Member for Streatham is an 1293 honourable man, and seeks to solve an appalling problem that affects his constituents. It is not his intention to provide a trojan horse through which a new sus law can be brought slowly to bear.
§ Sir William Shelton (Streatham)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the problem that kerb crawling causes to my constituents, and to many other people throughout the country. Is he aware that on Report and Third Reading recently we had a debate lasting for four hours, and that he spoke for more than one hour? Does he recollect that he has objected to the Bill five times on Fridays? Is he proposing to talk it out? If so, he may become the friend of the kerb crawlers and prostitutes and the enemy of the badgers, as he will deny an appearance on the Floor of the House to those friendly animals.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I oppose the Bill because it is bad law. That is the right of an hon. Member. I recognise that the Daily Express and the Daily Mail do not agree with me. As, is often the case, those two virulent little journals have lied and distorted the truth about this debate. They are a disgrace to their profession: they have lower professional standards than the prostitute women and kerb crawlers to whom they have referred. One must ignore that, however, and do what is right. The Bill would lead to the conviction of innocent people, and I will do everything possible to stop it reaching the statute book.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
I wish to correct something that was said by the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton). I have it on good authority that, were the Bill to complete its remaining stages before 2.30 pm, the Protection of Badger Setts Bill—sadly—would still not be reached. The spokespeople of the British Field Sports Society in the House who tried to impede it in Committee—on which I sat—intend to talk out the Radioactive Material (Road Transport) Bill. I have an amendment to that Government-sponsored Bill. Irrespective of the length of the speech of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone)—or any other contributions—we shall not reach the Protection of Badger Setts Bill.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I shall do everything possible to ensure that the Protection of Badger Setts is passed. That is not the problem. There cannot be a deal which says, "Let us pass this Bill although it might lead to the conviction of innocent people, except that we do not need it because we already have the Public Order Act, which gives the police full powers to tackle the problem, and carry on to reach the Protection of Badger Setts Bill." As the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, other hon. Members determined to talk that out.
§ Mr. Colvin
As a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Protection of Badger Setts Bill, I must point out that some hon. Members have been wrongly associated with a movement to stop it. As the hon. Gentleman knows, given the delicate nature of private Members' legislation, it is essential that there is a meeting of minds which often takes place outside the Chamber. I succeeded in getting a private Members' Bill on to the statute book this Session. Without a great deal of 1294 compromise, which was reached in discussion outside the Chamber, that would not have been possible. That is the way forward for the Protection of Badget Setts Bill, and I hope that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) appreciates that. If he were to follow that approach, there is a good chance that the Bill will get on to the statute book, which is what we all want.
§ Mr. Livingstone
Whatever we do, badgers will not be put at risk by the sexual offences legislation.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Melloir)
The hon. Gentleman is being inappropriately skittish. He thinks that it is great fun to be the only hon. Member who is seeking to block the Bill. The only consequences of his doing so is that men who are making a nuisance of themselves and causing genuine problems to women in urban areas will get away wih it, and boys who are committing acts of rape will get away with it because an absurd legal technicality that deems that they are not capable of such acts. If he is determined to talk out the Bill, let him not be skittish. Most hon. Members would look for better things to put on their escutcheon than blocking a Bill such as this. He is getting no help from Labour Front-Bench spokesmen, so if he is determined to do this, let him at least do it with a bit of dignity and in the recognition that 649 hon. Members do not agree with him.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I am interested by the Minister's intervention. When we last debated this, there were not 649 hon. Members present—indeed, there were not 50 hon. Members present. He cannot invoke the idea that the whole House is happily in favour of the Bill. Leading members of his party have approached me privately to commend my stand because they consider the legislation to be flawed and dangerous.
§ Mr. Mellor
I suspect that that is a terminological inexactitude. It is easy for hon. Members to devise conversations without fully disclosing them; the hon. Gentleman is a past master at that. He cannot hide behind that evasion. He knows full well that on a Friday many hon. Members are absent with good reason. He also knows full well that no other hon. Member is prepared to block the Bill. He is alone in doing that. I cannot think that he serves any interest very well, not least those of women in his constituency. If he is to block the Bill, let us not have any trivial remarks about badgers not being put at risk. Groups of people who most of us take just as seriously as badgers—women—will be put at risk as a result of what he is doing.
§ Mr. Livingstone
It is a pleasure to hear the Minister getting so upset. If this legislation is so important, why, after 11 years in office, have not the Government introduced it? If, as he told the House—terminological inexactitude is an understatement—people are committing rape and getting away with it but the Bill will stop them, why have not the Government, after 11 years in office, considered it important enough to introduce legislation? If he is genuinely concerned about women, let him tell the House why the Government are blocking the legislation that will make rape in marriage a crime. I believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman comes close to stretching the credibility of those who must listen to him.
1295 The Minister gave all sorts of commitments at an earlier stage in the debate. What is the basis on which a Government have to give commitments on how legislation will operate to ensure that it is not 'inaccurately followed? The Government have the ability, in Government time, to produce legislation that does not have those problems.
§ Mr. Mellor
I am playing the hon. Gentleman's game, but even he is coming to the end of it. We might as well at least hear something on the other side of the case. It is a recognised fact that private Members bring forward legislation with Government support and effect major changes in the criminal law, as was done to increase the sentences for drug trafficking to life imprisonment. That is a well-recognised way to meet the inclinations of not only private Members, because of particular constituency problems, but of the Government and, to be fair, the Opposition. The hon. Gentleman has made a bad and spurious point.
This practice requires people who are prepared to stand within the camp rather then being, like the hon. Gentleman, out of sympathy with the normal way in which business is transacted. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) raised points which I was able to meet to his satisfaction. That is the way things are done. There is nothing unusual about suggesting that the legislation will be monitored and giving the commitments which mean that it could be revoked if the hon. Gentleman's fanciful motions that the Bill will be used oppressively proved true. Some of those who opposed the sus law did not just emote against it but sat on the Committee considering the legislation—as I did—and abolished it.
Even at the 11th hour, the hon. Gentleman has an opportunity to ensure that the predicted consequences of the Bill the last time objection was made to it, five years ago, are erased. It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman will not even accept the guidance of his Front Bench but stands apart from every other Member who has participated in the debate, whatever ghostly comments he may have heard in the Corridor.
§ Mr. Livingstone
It is interesting to hear the hon. and learned Gentleman speculate about what other people might believe or do. If the support for this legislation about which he tells the House exists, it is in his power to move a closure motion and see whether he can find enough Members to vote. If this legislation is that important, why have not the Government gone through the normal nods and winks process and got their supporters here to pass it?
I still want to hear an answer to the question I put to the Minister. Is he telling the House that for 11 years the Government have allowed people to get away with rape and that this legislation will stop that? That was the implication of his comments, but he knows that it is not true. The Government have recognised that the law needs to be tidied up on a technical point. It is clearly nonsense to say that boys under 14 are incapable of sexual intercourse. At the earliest stages, I made it clear that the House agrees that this anomaly should end, not just because someone is getting away with it. All the young boys under 14 who commit rape and are captured by the police are detained under the existing legislation in exactly 1296 the same institutions and for exactly the same period as they would have been detained if the law relating to rape applied to young boys.
The Minister came close to misleading the House, and I notice that he does not step up to offer an apology or to give the evidence showing that boys under 14 who have got away with rape would have been caught by this legislation.
§ Mr. Mellor
I notice that the hon. Gentleman—who has no legal qualifications and had no long-term interest in this matter, until his interest was whipped up by the English Collective of Prostitutes and others—speaks with great authority on matters that do not lie within his ken. I do not propose to carry on making the hon. Gentleman's task of filibustering any easier. The fact that I do not rise to my feet does not mean that I accept any of his points. It is utterly wrong that someone who commits rape should get away with it on a technicality. The idea that such a person can be charged with other offences—as he can—does not go to the point. One could say that any rape involves violence, so why bother to have the offence? I shall not be drawn into that argument. If the hon. Gentleman is so determined to do his dirty business, let him do so without invoking my assistance. I want to put on record the fact that what he is doing this afternoon is thoroughly and utterly discreditable and reprehensible. It is discreditable not only to people, including many of his hon. Friends, with legitimate constituency concerns, but in the eyes of the occupants of his Front Bench, as was made clear on the previous occasion, when they dissociated themselves from what he is trying to do.
§ Mr. Livingstone
Still the Minister does not provide examples. Is he really saying that for 11 years people have been getting away with rape on a legal technicality, yet the Government have not been prepared to introduce legislation to stop it? What nonsense. If he will not provide examples of cases, it comes close to an attempt to deceive the House and play to the gallery, which is what happened last time. On that occasion I was approached by Conservative Members and told, in effect, "If you block the Bill, we will have a campaign against you and say that you are the loony Left."
I do not give in to such threats. I am blocking the Bill because it would be bad law and would lead to people being convicted for crimes of which they were innocent. I will not be browbeaten by the Minister or be put off by him. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is perhaps more of a gentleman than I am. He believed the assurances that the Minister gave. I do not believe them. I have listened to the hon. and learned Gentleman inside and outside the House, for 10 years and I would not give tuppence for his assurances. Even if he intended to carry them out, I do not believe that he has the necessary control over the judiciary or the police.
The Minister could stop the problem of kerb crawling by using the existing law, under which the police have power to arrest people who offend women in that way. Will the Minister circulate to chief constables and the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis an instruction drawing their attention to the existing legislation and the problem? Will he get to his feet and say what he proposes to do about that?
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman thinks that he is at some management committee meeting of the Labour party, browbeating in the old way. I will not respond to 1297 that, but I must tell him that despite the veneer that he puts on, for our benefit, of bonhomie and sophistication, it does not take much to bring out the sneering and snarling individual to whom we have been listening. He has no reason to accuse me of bad faith. I have been in the House a good deal longer than he has. and I have been a Minister for nine years, regularly giving assurances. Not once has anyone said that my assurances were inaccurate or not well-intentioned. Such a charge has never been levelled against me by the occupants of the Opposition Front Bench because on legislation—for example, in dealing recently with the Broadcasting Bill—I have always been able to work effectively with them.
The ridiculousness of the hon. Gentleman's position is fully exposed, and to defend himself he must make imputations of had faith which, frankly, say more about him than about anything that has come from his Front Bench.
§ Mr. Livingstone
Again, the Minister has not answered my question. He is not prepared to give the House the details of alleged cases of boys under 14 getting away with rape. Nor is he prepared to say that he will use the existing legislation and the resources of the police to tackle the problem now. What has the Minister been doing since we last debated this issue? He has heard from hon. Members whose constituents suffer the harassment of kerb crawlers and he knows that under existing legislation he has power to take action now. Why is he not doing that?
The answer is that the Government are playing politics with the issue. They have had all the time in the world to tackle the problems of violence against, and harassment of, women inside and outside marriage, but they are not prepared to deal with that. They have used the procedures that I am using to block a Bill that would have made rape in marriage illegal. Will the Minister now accept that that was a mistake? Are the Government prepared to say that rape in marriage should be a crime and that they will allow that measure to proceed?
One cannot give credence to a Government who, after 11 years in office, have neglected the rights of women and who now pose as the champions of women by hiding behind this measure in the name of the hon. Member for Streatham. They control the state machine, the police and the judiciary. After over a decade in Government those issues are not being tackled, and they must answer for that. I repeat my offer to the Minister to explain why he will not use the Public Order Act 1986 and other legislation to ensure that the issue is dealt with now. We should not wait for the Bill to be passed and crawl its way through the Lords. If the Minister is genuinely concerned about women who are harassed on our streets, he should tell the House why he will not use existing legislation and circulate to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and the chief constables a memorandum drawing their attention to this problem and demanding that they put police resources into tackling it.
The Minister will not do so because this is about politics and vote-buying. That is why his party collaborates in the sort of smears that we saw in the gutter press. I will not be browbeaten by the gutter press, and certainly not by the Minister. He has it in his power to tackle the problem, but he is not prepared to do it, any more than the Government have been prepared to do much at all for women in any area during the past decade. The Government are in no sense the friends of women. All that they want out of this 1298 is to creep back with a new form of sus law that will allow an individual man to be arrested and convicted solely on the word of a police officer. No self-respecting western democracy has such power and no good police officer wants it. If laws have to rely on such power, they will be more at home in the regimes that we are seeing collapse in eastern Europe and other parts of the world where democracy has no long-term standing or is no more than a sham.
In this country all individuals should be able to rely on the law to defend them. Women are harassed and men who might be innocently driving through an area could be stopped by a police officer who says, "I saw you stop and talk to a woman." No evidence would have to be produced, and the woman involved would not have to be produced, but a conviction could be gained solely on the basis of the police officer's word. No law in this country should give rise to such circumstances. Under this Government there has been far too much of a drift away from the old principles of justice where people are convicted on the basis of evidence, particularly forensic evidence. More and more, convictions are based solely on a police officer's word and the extraction of confessions in the cells.
Our legal system is probably the worst in western Europe in terms of its checks and balances. I do not have the slightest intention of pandering to the Minister. I repeat that I would not believe his assurances on any basis and I am not prepared to accept them now. If I do so and step down, I will not have to put up with the filth that will appear in The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express tomorrow, but innocent people will be harassed and the sus law will return. I am not prepared to see that, so I am exercising my right to stand here and oppose a Bill that I think is wrong.
After all this time, there has been no answer to the questions that I put to the Government. Every time the Minister gets to his feet he puts forward another smear or plays to the gallery. No doubt the gutter press are getting their headlines ready for tomorrow. I am not interested in that.
§ Sir William Shelton
Has the hon. Gentleman ever approached me or considered approaching me to see whether we could reach some agreement on the Bill?
§ Mr. Livingstone
There is no agreement; there is a basic, fundamental disagreement. The Bill has two simple points. The first, which is completely uncontroversial for hon. Members, is to remove the problem of the law's inability to state that boys under 14 can commit sexual intercourse. In the previous debate on this Bill, I said that if the other part of the Bill were dropped, we would agree to the remaining section and it would be unanimously carried in the House and in the House of Lords. There is no dissent about that.
The problem relates to the other part of the Bill which means that one police officer's word will be able to convict a man, without any corroborating evidence or witness. That is the point of contention and there is no way that that can be compromised away because it is a genuine point of disagreement. I recognise the sincerity of the hon. Member for Streatham, but not that of the Minister.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
My hon. Friend has answered the question asked by the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton). At least my hon. 1299 Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) is visible when he is talking out the Bill. Everyone knows that if my hon. Friend is still talking at 2.30, the Bill will not proceed. Everyone in the country will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East did it, whereas my Bill —the Protection of Badger Setts Bill—was killed off by one Member, who did not consult me either, but who tried to claim the cloak of anonymity. At least my hon. Friend is not trying to kill the Bill anonymously.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) is killing the badger Bill.
§ Mr. Livingstone
After the various diversions that originated from the Minister, I shall return to the place in my speech where I was interrupted by him about 20 minutes ago.
Once again, I must draw the House's attention to the analysis of the Bill that appeared in The Guardian. I know that some Conservative Members regard The Guardian as an adjunct to the Labour party, but that is not how it appears to us. It analyses the objections that the English Collective of Prostitutes has put up:
the Collective are concerned at the power this puts into the hands of the police and fear that the bill could be used in an arbitrary and random fashion by unscrupulous officers. It is so open-ended, they feel, that it could soon become a replacement for the notorious 'sus' laws.Ninety-nine per cent. of police officers are excellent and honourable people. They come into the profession because they want to serve the public and they do so to the best of their ability, often with inadequate resources provided by central and local government. Often they have the task of implementing legislation which has been particularly badly drafted by the House; they can often be the meat in the sandwich between a resistant public and a reactionary Government, but they do the best that they can. Even if we accept that 99 per cent. are honest and honourable and honourable—
§ Question put, That the Question be now put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 38, Noes 5.1300
|Division No. 284]||[2.11 pm|
|Amess, David||McWilliam, John|
|Anderson, Donald||Maples, John|
|Atkins, Robert||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Mellor, David|
|Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard||Moate, Roger|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)||Morrison, Sir Charles|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Moynihan, Hon Colin|
|Carrington, Matthew||Sackville, Hon Tom|
|Cash, William||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Colvin, Michael||Squire, Robin|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Stern, Michael|
|Durant, Tony||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Dykes, Hugh||Thorne, Neil|
|Fraser, John||Tredinnick, David|
|Gale, Roger||Wheeler, Sir John|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall)|
|Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Janman, Tim||Sir William Shelton and|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Mr. Hugo Summerson.|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Godman, Dr Norman A.||Mr. Harry Barnes and|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)||Mr. Ken Livingstone.|
§ Whereupon MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided in the affirmative, because it was not supported by the majority prescribed by Standing Order No. 36 (Majority for Closure).
§ Mr. Livingstone
In one sense, I am rather glad that the hon. Member for Streatham called the Division. The result of it puts into perspective the remarks of the Minister of State, Home Office. If the hon. and learned Gentleman bothers to return to the Chamber, he may care to explain why proposed legislation that he says is vital does not attract the support of enough Conservative Members even to force a closure. That puts the reality into perspective.
§ Sir William Shelton
Will the hon. Gentleman understand that I did not contact any of my colleagues, who would have come to the House gladly? I was unaware until late last night that the Consumer Guarantees Bill would not be on the Order Paper. Will the hon. Gentleman understand also my strength of feeling at his action in killing the Bill, which is desperately needed by many people? If he attracts the label of the friend of the prostitute and the kerb crawler, and the hon. Member who helped to talk out the Protection of Badger Setts Bill, it will be what he deserves.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I thank the hon. Gentleman for revealing the motives behind the Government's protestations.
§ Mr. Livingstone
Had the Father of the House been in his place earlier, he would have heard me explain that we could immediately tackle the problem of kerb crawling. The Government have the powers that they need under the Public Order Act 1986. Any man approaching a woman and making an offensive or indecent suggestion can be arrested under that legislation. I am sure that the Father of the House will want to know about my proposal and add his weight to it. I said to the Minister of State, Home Office, "Why do you not immediately issue a circular to every chief constable and to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis reminding them of the 1986 legislation and urging them to get their officers out on the streets to tackle the problem immediately?" The Government have the necessary powers, but they do not have the political will to act. They do not have the commitment to defend women.
What we have seen is a sham and a play for votes. The contribution of the hon. Member for Streatham suggests that more is going on to produce headlines than to tackle the problem of women being harassed. That is exactly what I would expect from a Government whose supporters are blocking the Bill to make rape in marriage illegal.
I am sure that the Father of the House supports that Bill. Let him join me in urging those hon. Members who have been jumping up and down protesting their support for the Sexual Offences Bill to campaign to get the Public Order Act 1986 used immediately, as it can be. The Government could issue an instruction tonight to police forces throughout the country. They could ensure that 1301 time was found to consider the proposed legislation that would make rape in marriage illegal. We require action from the Executive, not a whole load of hot air, with hon. Members playing to the gallery and trying to stir up the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Sun and the other elements of the gutter press that have done nothing in the past decade to put pressure on the Government genuinely to defend the rights of women or genuinely to protect women on our streets and in our homes. Everything that the Government have done has undermined the position of women. The Government are playing politics with this issue.
We should not pass legislation which is, in effect, a new sus law, and which allows the police powers that would not be acceptable in any other modern western democracy with a written constitution or a Bill of Rights. If the Government wish to pursue that line, let them have the courage to find the time in their legislative programme for next Session, and do something about it—
§ It being half past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.