§ `Section 1 of the 1985 Act as amended by this Act shall only apply to designated local authorities. An area may be designated by a local authority if
- (a) complaints are made by the general public and
- (b) the police are satisfied there is a problem of prostitution and kerb-crawling and
- (c) all other reasonable steps have been taken to deal with the problem.
§ Any designations shall remain in force for three years, but may be renewed thereafter.'.—[Mr. Andrew F. Bennett.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.9.35 am
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I want to make my position absolutely clear: I do not in any way approve of prostitution, male or female, and I think it a tragedy that people are driven to it by poverty or greed, or for any other reason. It is a sad reflection on human beings, too, that they are driven to use prostitutes by their own failure to enjoy sexual relationships of a loving and caring nature. So nothing that I say today is meant to defend prostitution.
I am well aware also of the problems for people who live in red light districts, in areas where kerb crawling takes place and where people try to pick up prostitutes in pubs and clubs. In some cases, these activities leave people virtually prisoners in their own homes at night, and sometimes in the day, frightened to go out because they think they may be propositioned in the streets. These activities also cause major problems for people who run pubs and clubs and who try to discourage them.
I am also well aware of the absolute disgust felt by people who live in or near such areas and who find that the pathways are littered with used condoms and other rubbish. As I say, I am well aware of the extent of the problem.
However, I am also always a little worried when the House of Commons expresses horror, repugnance and disgust at the problem and assumes that it must take some action, but without first carefully weighing it up. It is all 510 too easy for us to be stampeded into taking action that appears to try to solve the problem but which, in practice, does not solve it at all. A cosmetic approach is all to easy.
Sometimes when the House is stampeded into trying to solve one problem it just causes another, harming certain people or curtailing the civil rights of a particular group, and that is why I urge caution today.
I should have liked to table an amendment that called on the Government to review the whole problem of prostitution, but unfortunately that was outside the scope of the long title of the Bill. Although I understand the desire of the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) to deal with the problem of kerb crawling, I believe that there is a much wider problem that must be dealt with at some stage. The idea of new clause 2 is to allow the whole issue to be debated, within the rules of order, and more particularly to discover the Government's thinking about the problems of prostitution and kerb crawling.
We ought to spend a minute looking back at the history of this legislation and at the continual complaints about kerb crawling that have been made to Parliament most of the time since I entered the House in 1974. Strong arguments have been advanced that something should be done to ensure that the men, not the prostitutes, involved in kerb crawling are prosecuted. There have been various attempts to introduce legislation, and a Bill appeared in 1985. That Bill was hotly contested. It was argued that the major problem of kerb crawling had to be addressed. We also heard the perfectly legitimate argument that sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between a kerb crawler and a person who has strayed into an area by mistake and is genuinely seeking information, to find an address in that area or to find somewhere else.
Mr. Matthew Parris who was then a Member of the House and the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) argued at that time that we had to be careful not to place an innocent person in a position where he could be convicted of an offence that he clearly did not commit. That was why the legislation contained the provision that the offence had to be a persistent one in a motor car and that clear nuisance had to be created either to someone who was being solicited or to people in the area. It was a general catch-all provision. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) advanced the case for civil rights.
Why should the compromise that was hard fought in 1985 be destroyed by the Bill? We need convincing evidence before we take out the words that were put in to achieve such a balance in 1985 in the "persistently" and "annoyance" clause. Is there overwhelming evidence that the retention of that clause is at the root of the problem? The police say that they have had the legislation since 1986 but that it has not worked because the onus of proof is too difficult for them, so they have not used the legislation. I am not totally convinced by that argument.
There are many reasons why the police have not dealt with the problem and even if we change the legislation I am not convinced that it will be solved. Will changing the legislation solve the problem without creating the possibility that a small number of people who are in no way involved in kerb crawling could be convicted for it? Worse still in some ways, could such people be prosecuted? It is stigmatising for people to be prosecuted let alone convicted. In theory, if someone is acquitted by the courts there is no stain on his character. However, almost every hon. Member present in the Chamber would accept that in 511 such cases there will be nudges and winks and innuendo because people think that a person who has been acquitted in such cases was in some way involved. They take the view that the court was kind to him or that he was lucky to get away with it.
Can the Minister present overwhelming evidence to show that the police have genuinely tried to use the 1985 Act and have in practice found it impossible to use? Secondly, is there overwhelming willingness on the part of the police to use it if it is amended? What other action is being taken? I have the feeling that what is before the House is a placebo. It is a cheap solution to say that fines will be increased and prosecutions will be made easier so we can forget about the problem. The view is that it will be a terrible nuisance for people who live in such areas, but the legislation may solve the problem in the next three or four years. Meanwhile, it is said, nothing needs to be done about it.
We should be looking for a much more fundamental solution than the one suggested in the Bill. It will have no impact on people who apparently cruise around such areas. Cruising around in cars for such purposes is a nasty activity but the Bill will not stop it. If the practice of prostitution disappeared in an area there would be no point in people cruising around in their cars. Have local authorities with prostitution in their area looked at other ways to deal with it? I am told that in some areas pedestrianisation has stopped cars cruising about and that in some cases it has stopped prostitutes standing in the area.
There is considerable scope for traffic management schemes. The new clause suggests that in addition to increasing the chances of conviction, the Government, local authorities and others should look for other solutions. A traffic management scheme that makes it difficult for cars to remain in an area substantially reduces the problem. Most people want to drive through such areas as quickly as possible. Street lighting and general appearance have much to do with the problem. In some though not all cases, an improvement in street lighting and in the way in which streets are set out for parking will make the area less attractive for prostitution.
My next argument deals with the level of policing. I am assured by the police that the presence of police cars with lights can lead to a substantial reduction in prostitution. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what he thinks is the best policing practice in such areas. Is it quiet surveillance and attempts at prosecution or is it much more obvious policing? If the police aim for many prosecutions, they simply increase the notoriety of an area, whereas a fairly high level of obvious policing may well reduce the problem and use police time more efficiently. Much police time is taken up by bringing prosecutions. Police officers could be used more effectively on our pavements.
The new clause ensures a proper democratic debate about the problems in specific areas. I am greatly worried about the way in which our police force has developed. There is not much opportunity for democratic debate about policing in a particular area. Enforcement of the law is governed by decisions made by the chief constable, probably in consultation with one or two other senior 512 police officers in his area. It is for the chief constable to decide on the level of resources to be devoted to combating kerb crawling and activities in red light districts.
Some chief constables seem to ignore the problem. They think that there are far more important issues to deal with and that it is not helpful to move the problem from one area to another. They prefer to know where such activities are going on and know about the side issues that they create, such as drug abuse. If one lives in such an area and keeps pressing the police to take action, it is extremely frustrating if official, although unpublished, police policy is to keep a low profile when dealing with the problem.
Other chief constables—for example, in the west midlands—give the matter a high level of publicity and hope that sending letters to people who have been seen in the area will deter them. Will the Minister tell us whether such campaigns have achieved the results for which the chief constable hoped, or have they simply increased the problem? A worrying factor is that some people get involved in such activity out of bravado and a desire to live on the knife edge, almost daring themselves to get away with it. Publicity about an area may simply attract such people to it.
Other chief constables want to take action quietly. They have a high level of policing in the area, warning or cautioning many people, but do not bring many prosecutions. Others want a high level of prosecutions because that makes their crime statistics look good.
I admit that I have put forward these approaches in very generalised terms, but I should like the Minister to tell us which of them is bringing the best results. What advice is Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary giving chief constables about how they should approach the problem? There is a strong case for making sure that there is a proper local debate about the appropriate action to take.
I realise that there are major problems with the new clause in that if an area is designated it immediately becomes stigmatised and the debate about it adds to the publicity. The other difficulty is that designating areas means drawing lines, with the absurd result that someone could be prosecuted for such activity on one side of the road but not if he was on the other side. Furthermore, one could simply remove the problem from one set of streets to another.
However, designation will force people to examine the problem of prostitution and weigh up the implications. Some people may argue that we should be getting rid of prostitution altogether. However, history shows us that, although all sorts of different regimes have been used, rather than getting rid of prostitution, they have simply driven it from one place to another. There must be local debate about the impact of simply moving the problem of kerb crawling from one neighbourhood to another. Those who have had to put up with the problem for many years will no doubt be delighted, and I do not blame them for that. If we stop kerb crawling, will we create another problem which may cause as great a nuisance? All these factors have to be discussed.
What is the Government strategy for dealing with prostitution? Do they hope that if the Bill is passed, whether amended or not, it will solve the problem? Are the Government giving guidance to local authorities about traffic management, pedestrianised areas, better street lighting? These are all changes that may help to deal with the problem. Do the Government believe that they can eradicate prostitution altogether? Will they be bold and 513 courageous and say that, as they cannot get rid of it, they will regulate it? Will they go for the compromise of keeping prostitution illegal, but ignoring the problem and not insisting on enforcement of the law?
Designating areas will go some way to ensuring that the problem of wrongful arrest and charging will not spread. What guidance will the Government give the police about the use of these powers? There will be pressure to deal with people who ride around in cars and talk to people on the kerb, even though they are not picking up prostitutes. In my constituency, a fair number of young people cruise around the streets in their cars—it seems sad that they have nothing better to do [and stop and chat to other teenagers on the pavement, causing nuisance to older residents. Will the Minister make it clear that there is no intention of allowing this legislation to be used in such circumstances? Will he make clear the onus of proof?
I am worried about this aspect because it is not ideal to say that a court would not convict someone of the offence without clear evidence that he had stopped and spoken to a prostitute or had gone into the area without a legitimate excuse. If enacted, the Bill will switch the onus of proof from the police having to prove that someone was kerb crawling to the individual having to prove that he was not but was in the area for a legitimate reason, for example, to ask the way.
I hope that the Minister can answer at least some of these questions and that the hon. Member for Streatham can give a little more thought to the fact that he is taking not only the word "persistently" but "nuisance" out of the 1985 Act. He should at least consider, before breaking up the 1985 compromise, whether it would be sensible to retain a safeguard. We want to keep the safeguard for the individual walking along the street in that, to be prosecuted for attempting to pick up somebody, he has to do it persistently. The only reason for removing that proviso from someone who is in or close to a motor vehicle is that he might commit the offence in one street and then move on to the next street and it would be difficult for the police to bring a prosecution. I do not consider that to be an overwhelming argument. If it is reasonable to apply the word "persistently" to an individual who is walking down a street, it should apply to someone in a car.
I have spoken for far too long, therefore I shall now sit down and listen to other speeches.
§ 10 am
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Mellor)
Because of the unavoidable absence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), I find myself taking a trip down memory lane, as I was the Minister dealing with the 1985 Act. Therefore I am well familiar with the arguments, and I come to the Dispatch Box buoyed up by the confidence of having predicted that, because of the words we were forced to insert into the 1985 Act as the price of getting the Bill through the House of Commons, the Act would thereby be rendered only partially effective. No doubt what I said then bears the test of time better than some of the other things that I said about various topics five years ago.
I hope that I shall have the attention of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), as it is important that we should reach sensible terms on the matter.
514 In 1985 Parliament listened to appeals from com-munities in different parts of the country that were fed up to the back teeth with having their neighbourhoods ruined and despoiled by the activities of prostitutes and their clients. Two distinct but related problems were identified: first, the awfulness of living in an area where one could not walk around without being made totally aware of what was happening and the fact that that was a serious public nuisance and detriment to the amenities of an area; and secondly, the fact that perfectly respectable women were unable to go out in the evenings without being the object of those appalling attentions.
Let me say straight away that this is not a party matter, thank God. The 1985 Bill had support from all sides of the Chamber, as does the Bill today. There is no partisan element, and I have nothing but praise for the way in which those on the Labour Front Bench have sought to get the Bill through. By an irony, last time we debated the matter two Conservative Back Benchers were responsible for the difficulties. One of them has now gone on to a higher plane in the sphere of journalism. I do not think that he has ever quite forgiven me for some of the things that I said about his campaign against that Bill. It is a cross that I now have to bear every time I see a reference to myself in his column.
However, it was a fight well worth taking on. If, in 1985, Parliament had failed to pass a Bill to give those communities some respite, it would have stood condemned by the public, so I am not ashamed or embarrassed at having fought for that Bill. But an Act is not enough in itself; it has to be effective.
I do not talk of these matters academically. Although, thank goodness, my own constituency of Putney is not particularly afflicted by such problems, the borough of Wandsworth, where I have my parliamentary constitu-ency, has had persistent problems for many years. The problems in Bedford hill in the constituency of the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) were among those most prominently described in 1985.
I respect the parliamentary skills of the hon. Member for Denton and Redclish, and I regret that he is an obstacle to the Bill's progress because I recognise him as a formidable obstacle and a parliamentarian well capable of making his opposition to any measure effective. As we proceed this morning, I shall try to assist him with any legitimate points that he raises. I am sincere in that, as I do not consider it a matter of shame that hon. Members are concerned about the civil liberties aspects of the criminal law. I am concerned about them too and I always have in mind that little tag, "Quin custodiet ipsos custodes" or, "Who shall protect us from our protectors?" and believe that checks and balances should always exist.
However, the hon. Gentleman should think long and hard before using today as an opportunity to prevent the Bill from making progress. In doing that, he would be denying not only the will of the rest of the House, which has been convincingly expressed in Committee and on Second Reading, but redress to decent folk who deserve it. He would also be failing to recognise the significance of the issue for women.
One of the most healthy developments in recent times has been a great narrowing of the gap between various parts of the Chamber on a number of key women's issues. I was glad to see it recorded in one of the Sunday papers —although I do not think that the author was particularly impressed—that a number of Opposition women 515 Members of Parliament came to see me with researchers and experts on pornography and its impact on women, and we reached almost total agreement. There was a time when men regarded pornography as a bit of a laugh. Plenty of people now recognise that excessive porno-graphy is a threat to women and are prepared to be more sensitive to women's views.
Because the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish is a man, if he walks down a road in his constituency, or even if he parades up and down Bedford hill every day for a month, it is unlikely that any kerb crawler would try to pick him up. But the fact that it would not happen to him is no reason for being insensitive to the rights of those to whom I can assure him it will happen if Parliament is not prepared to be rather more firm in its resolve than it was in 1985. Male members of Parliament—I know that the hon. Gentleman has at least one other ally—should think long and hard before putting a somewhat academic approach to the legislation before the practical requirement of sensible law enforcement. It is clear that the problem will not go away.
However, we need to demonstrate that we are as serious about private Members' legislation as we are about Government legislation. I am a great believer in private Members' legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) is here today. One of my happiest parliamentary memories is taking through the House of Commons with him his Bill dealing with the problem of video nasties. He worked extremely hard on the Bill, which is a monument to his work. We do not hear about video nasties any more. His was a complex and difficult Bill; it was properly argued and there were genuine points of dispute, but ultimately Parliament appreciated that something had to be done and that it was a good thing for Parliament that legislation of such complexity could be taken through by a private Member.
However, it did require certain Members who were not happy about the Bill to show some restraint and recognise that, although it was not everything they wanted it to be, it was something that the majority of Members wanted and which plainly addressed a real public ill. It was a real and genuine cause, not an issue which some hon. Members had invented.
It is unfortunate that, in recent times, private Members' legislation that has had a great deal of support has been blocked by only one or two hon. Members. That is a flaw of our private Members' system. I hope that the Bill, which deals with two important issues of criminal law, will not join the long list of private Members' Bills that have been blocked.
I say that so that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish knows what my view is from the outset. I am not saying that I do not want to deal sensibly with legitimate objections. Indeed, I am prepared to spend a long time doing so. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would be lightly forgiven, however, not least by other Opposition Members, if he were to take his opposition beyond the reasonable point of asking us sensibly to justify what we are doing and why we are doing it.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
I understand all the arguments and the implied threats that the Minister is presenting. I remind him that, when the sus legislation passed through the House, it was a response to an outcry from outside that 516 such legislation was required. We soon began to be aware of the resulting problems. That is the danger. I have made it clear that I understand that there is substantial concern about kerb crawling. We must be careful, however, that we do not produce a placebo to cause people outside this place to think that we are doing something but which does not attack the real problem. We must ensure that, in responding to a problem, we do not erode civil rights and cause some people to be wrongfully convicted.
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman's intervention reveals that I was right to give him 10 out of 10 for sincerity but not such a high mark for accuracy. The sus law passed through the House in 1824, and was abolished in 1980. I was a member of the Committee that considered the 1980 legislation, and I was an ardent advocate of it.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Tooting has entered the Chamber. I should tell him that I have been talking about the problems of living in Bedford hill, for example, which he knows far better than I do. I ask the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish to understand that this is not an academic matter that should be dealt with academically.
The sus law was abolished because it was seen to be oppressive. I put that as a battle honour on the escutcheon in proving that I am not interested in repressive or oppressive legislation. I dare say that every hon. Member who was in the place during the 1979 Parliament voted with a glad heart to abolish the sus law. I can say with certainty that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) did. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish chose a terribly bad example, and he was wrong to imply that the sus law was a recent invention. It was introduced a long time ago, and was rightly abolished in 1980. We are all glad about that.
One of the answers in an area where there is a problem of the sort that we are discussing is to pedestrianise it, but pedestrianising decent residential areas near a major thoroughfare such as Bedford hill suggests evasion rather than a policy. I cannot think of anything more ludicrous than inviting local authorities to become involved in millions of pounds of expenditure on pedestrianising because Parliament cannot nerve itself to pass a decent and effective statute. If the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish and for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) went to Bedford hill and said, "Listen chaps, we must pedestrianise it," I think that they would get the bird. I shall await their response.
As I have said, I am not aware that there are any prostitution or kerb crawling problems in Putney. I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you live in Wimbledon, which is not far from my constituency. We are equidistant from Bedford hill. I do not think that you have any problems in Wimbledon. If we were to engage in some absurd designation process of the sort postulated in the new clause, offenders would soon be aware of it. They would say, "We cannot do it here, in these six streets, but if we move about a quarter of a mile down the road, everything will be all right." That would result in an absurd tag match, in which the authorities would be chasing offenders and trying frantically to extend designation to meet the spread of the problem.
That has happened before. When we began in Wandsworth to have a street robbery problem, it soon 517 became clear that it was the result of the intensity of the action that had been taken on the Northern line to stop robberies. I am talking about the action that was taken a few years ago to deal with the problem in Brixton. Every mugger who was worth his salt said, "It is getting a bit tricky here, we'll move west a bit." As a result, Wandsworth faced a problem. For a brief period, street crime in the area increased.
I genuinely respect the parliamentary skills of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish. If he is to be critical of the thought processes of those who have formulated the Bill, let him ensure that his thought processes are manifestly better. If the new clause is the best that he can do, he cannot produce an answer to anything.
§ Mr. Matthew Carrington (Fulham)
My hon. and learned Friend has referred to street crime in south London. I remind him of another example which I think is even more pertinent—that of the drug industry. It is operated in a way similar to prostitution. People crawl along roads in their motor cars until they find someone who is prepared to sell them drugs. When the police in Notting Hill Gate cracked down on the activity in the All Saints area, the traders started to move on to the streets in SW6 and W6, including my constituency. In other words, the problem was transferred. I think that that is a perfect example of what my hon. and learned Friend is trying to say.
§ Mr. Mellor
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is a fellow inner-London Member and a parliamentary neighbour of mine. He does not approach the problem reeking of the midnight oil of academic study. He has practical experience and is aware of the nature of the problem. That is true also of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson).
I have not been inactive in the House this week, and might have thought that I could spend today pursuing some other cause, but I was not unhappy at the chance of being able to deal with the Bill. I consider that there is a problem that should be addressed. I shall not weary the House by going through what I said and did in 1985, but I am not ashamed of my words and actions when that legislation was passing through the House. What I said then has come true.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
I said when I moved the new clause that, once an area is designated, problems are transferred. Does the Minister accept that that is one of the problems of legislative action of the sort proposed? If it is enforced, some areas will receive a substantial amount of police attention. If the desire of the promoter, the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton), is to be realised, the problem will merely be moved. The Minister must think about that. Will the Bill stop prostitution, or will it merely move it somewhere else? Will it spread the problem so that the chance of being accosted in the street will increase and spread over a wider area? Will that activity be moved to pubs or clubs, for example? If the problem is moved, I understand that those who are now facing it will enjoy relief, but the Minister must address himself to the wider issue.
§ Mr. Mellor
There is a grain of truth in what the hon. Gentleman says. If policing focuses on one area, there is a potential problem that offenders will go to an area where policing is not so hot. I acknowledge that there are 518 examples of that. The answer is not to make it impossible to deal effectively with the problem of prostitution, or kerb crawling, in chronic areas. The answer is not to say, "You must bear the prostitution equivalent of the white man's burden so that the rest of the neighbourhood in a city or county is not afflicted by it. If we take effective action in your area, it will only spread somewhere else. So tough luck for you, the residents of Bedford hill, King's Cross and Walthamstow."
That is not so. We need a simple, effective and straightforward law which allows us to deal with kerb crawling, whether it is a manifestation of a particular red light district problem or whether it happens in a leafy lane in an area hitherto untouched by the problem. A woman there may be walking home at night, as she is perfectly entitled to do in a free society, and someone may come up in a car and start making suggestions. I must point out to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that that is one of the most desperately unpleasant experiences for a woman. A woman with whom I work was a victim of kerb crawling a year or two ago and she was desperately upset by it. It is an awful experience. That is why I am saying that we are not dealing with a problem that it would be nice to tackle, but which does not really matter very much. We shall fail in our duty if we do not deal with this problem and leave women without sensible redress.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
I am well aware of the problem of people being accosted in the street in areas that are unlike those with which we are dealing in the Bill. Is the Minister saying that the Bill is designed to deal with that? If he looks carefully at clause 1, he will see that it is not designed to deal with that problem. It is a separate problem. He would worry many people if he suggested that the Bill could be used against any man approaching any woman along any road.
§ Mr. Mellor
The Bill can be used in that way. Once again, with the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman is not doing himself much credit. It would be bad enough if he knew the parameters of the matter and then took a different view. In fact, each of his interventions suggests that he does not know what he is talking about, which is sad but true. The essence of the Bill is that it gives relief not only to hard-pressed people in areas where there are a series of cases of prostitution, but to my wife, to the wives of other hon. Members and to female Members when they are walking down the street late at night and are accosted by a man in circumstances where it is not an unreasonable imposition to say that his action is not proper and that the man renders himself liable to prosecution.
There is a great gap in the present law. After sustained efforts by the police, the number of prosecutions reached about 600 last year. However, that is the tip of the iceberg. The reason is that the law is hedged around by qualifications which were included only under the most extreme duress, because it would not otherwise have been possible for the Sexual Offences Act 1985 to be passed. The qualifications were put in with a clear warning of what the consequences would be.
By one of those happy coincidences that make life so exciting, I found in The Times law report on page 38 today the case of Darroch v. the Director of Public Prosecutions. It was a case in the divisional court about the Sexual Offences Act. What does it reveal? First, although the man beckoned a prostitute in an attempt to get her into his car, 519 and although the divisional court found that the magistrates were fully entitled to say that that was an act of solicitation, he was entitled to be acquitted because it happened only once. In such a clear-cut case, I cannot see the logic of making it not a criminal offence and of allowing people to do it twice. If I walk down the street and snatch a woman's handbag, people do not say that I had better do the same to another woman or it will not be an offence. For the life of me, I cannot see the logic in that.
Secondly—this is more pertinent to the concerns of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish—the divisional court upheld the contention of those acting for the appellant that merely driving around a red light district was not an offence and that the magistrates were not entitled to see that in itself as an act of solicitation. I rely on that to prove a point to which I shall come later if the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish persists with his other amendments.
It would be wrong for any hon. Member to proceed on the basis that he believes that the authorities cannot be trusted with the law because it will inevitably be used oppressively. The Darroch case and the care it was given by the divisional court are a sign of how seriously the courts take even pieces of legislation with which, I dare swear, they are no more happy than we are. Nobody likes to see somebody escape on a relatively spurious technicality, but it was made quite clear, as it would no doubt be in any similar case, that the requirements of the law are for more than what one would call potentially innocent activities.
I got a bit bored in 1985 with the man who stops a lady merely to ask the way to the Dog and Duck public house—although I dare say that we may hear about him again in 1990. One may get bad directions once and one may approach someone else, but in the intervening five years, I do not know of many people who have merely asked for the Dog and Duck and have had their lives ruined by being arrested.
Those who say that the Bill is potentially oppressive have a heavy burden to come forward with some examples. The evidence is that the courts have taken their duties under the Sexual Offences Act seriously and have not hesitated to make it clear that, even in a good cause, the rules cannot be bent, and that firm and clear guidance is given in each case.
The consequence of the Darroch case was that somebody who was plainly soliciting—the divisional court said that the magistrates were entitled to regard it as an act of solicitation—and about whom there was evidence that he had previously been found in the company of a prostitute in a stationary car, was not convicted. What message does that send out about the seriousness of Parliament's resolve? This week—quite rightly, I dare say—we stood here criticising the football authorities for slapping with the inside of a glove when dealing with the problems of football hooliganism. The present state of the law on soliciting is barely even a slap with the inside of a glove. It is a wilful abdication of Parliament's responsibility to put in a coherent and cogent set of legal arrangements.
I will seek to meet the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish on some points. I have discussed that with my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, the promoter of 520 the Bill, and with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall). I shall be able to show him ways in which we can monitor the consequences of removing the word "persistently" to show our sincerity in not wanting to see the law used oppressively.
However, it is clear that, as long as the law contains the word "persistently", the areas that sought redress from Parliament in 1985 will come back to Parliament for redress because their redress will be at best partial. Some people can cock a snook at the enforcement of the law in a way that I seriously suggest should not lead us, especially after the relatively effortless passage of the Bill so far, to let the Bill become blocked on the whim of one or two hon. Members.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
The Minister is misleading the House if he is saying that simply removing the word "persistently" will solve these problems. I ask him to think carefully. Some people who go into red light areas do so with the attitude of high risk, so it will not make a lot of difference if their chances of being caught are increased. It will simply increase their excitement to come to the area. I am also not convinced that greater policing will solve the problem. If the Minister said that by passing the Bill we should solve the problem of prostitution, I should have some sympathy for him. However, all he is saying is that we shall simply change the type of problem. I should have liked him to spend a little time addressing the question of what happens if we simply move people from one area to another. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) represents an area that suffers from these problems. He is also an experienced solicitor of many years standing. His response to the hon. Gentleman's remarks was, "Rubbish." Alas, even I cannot improve on that description.
Of course, no law that Parliament passes can solve the problem of itself. It can be solved only if the law is properly and sensibly policed. The police will face difficult decisions about what resources to give, what tactics to use, how to deal with the problem of a spillover into other areas and so on. However, if we give them a simple, effective and fair law, at least they will have a good chance of success.
The police cannot opt out and say that, simply because Parliament has failed in its duty, so too can the police. They must at least try to offer some redress to those living in the affected areas. A clear, simple, straightforward law, which also has the virtue of being fair, will make it easier for the police because, for the first time, they will have an opportunity to deal with these people. If someone is an exhibitionist, I should be only too happy if he put on an exhibition for the local magistrates court, which could then deal with him. What is so wrong at the moment is that he can put on an exhibition every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and twice on a Friday and get away with it. That is not an ornament to the way in which we deal with these matters.
On the point about deleting the word "persistently" from the 1985 Act, I shall make the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish what I hope he will accept is a sensible offer of a framework within which we can consider these matters. New clause 2 is an evasion, not an acceptance of responsibility. Parliament will do itself no credit if it accepts new clause 2. I hope that, as the morning 521 wears on, the hon. Gentleman will increasingly recognise that he is in a minority. Having raised the point and having, as I believe he will, received some substantive commitments about how we will proceed, there would be nothing disgraceful about him then retiring, thinking that he has done the best service that he can. If the Bill does not make progress today, it will be an abdication of responsibility by Parliament, and I should be thoroughly ashamed of that.
§ Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)
The notion of the criminal justice system being operated by a local authority is quite unacceptable to the Labour party. New clause 2 would mean that the Metropolitan police would encounter no-go areas in places affected by kerb crawling. They would have to consult a map to find out what parts of the London metropolitan area they could police. It could be that with a street falling between two boroughs, the police could pursue crime on one side but not on the other. New clause 2 is not acceptable. It would not allow the criminal justice system to operate in any logical and rational way. It would not allow the police the operational right to pursue crime.
I hope that the House will not spend too much time debating new clause 2. As the Minister said, this is not a party matter; it is one of great substance that has a profound effect on the lives of many people living in certain parts of London, and also in other parts of the country. The hon. Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) have strongly highlighted that. It is a problem of great magnitude. The Bill is part of the armoury we need to deal with the problem. I accept that local authorities have a role to play, such as erecting one-way-street signs. Unfortunately, the 1985 Act does not really work. If we retain the word "persistently" those living in areas affected by kerb crawling will be deeply distressed.
I well understand the two sides to the argument—first, that we need a law that works and protects people against kerb crawlers, and secondly, the preservation of civil liberties. I have considerable respect for the parliamentary skills of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). If he pursues new clause 2 and his other amendments, he could wreck the Bill. That would be sad and the Labour party would want to dissociate itself from that. I say to him, with all respect, that he has gone overboard on the civil liberties aspect. We should always be vigilant on civil liberties issues, but we must accept the Bill as it stands.
I welcome the Minister's suggestion—I do not want to be too specific, as I know that he is still thinking about it —that he can meet my hon. Friend's concerns. I imagine that he will write to the Attorney-General, perhaps suggesting that a circular be sent to the Crown prosecution service asking it to ensure that civil liberties are properly taken into account. The Bill is the best deal that we can get. I would be deeply distressed if my hon. Friend used his great skills—indeed, we are all at his disposal today—to block the Bill. I hope that he will not do so. I hope that he will accept the reasonableness of amending the 1985 Act by this Bill, so providing legislation that will work, but that will also protect people's civil liberties. If we can do that we shall have served our purpose as a House of Commons. If we reject the Bill women will be the major losers. That distresses me very much. I have discussed the matter with the leadership of my party and it is agreed that women 522 could be the losers. That is not acceptable, certainly to the Labour party, to hon. Members from other parties, or to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish.
The 1985 Act and the Bill are not about prostitution per se but about kerb crawlers. They are about people who can put their hand in their pocket and pull out £100, or however much it costs to buy a prostitute for the evening. We are not discussing the merits or demerits of prostitution but the kerb crawlers who have damaged some areas in which people who are often on low incomes, although not exclusively, live. The places affected by prostitution tend to be poorer areas and it is the more middle class people with their big company cars and perks who have the cash to come in and cause such disruption. I hope that today we shall not pursue the matter of prostitution per se.
I hope that the appeal that I have made to the House will be heeded. It is the best deal that we can reach. The people of London, and other parts of the country where prostitution is at its highest will welcome the measure if it is accepted. I sincerely hope that it will be.
§ Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)
My credentials for speaking in the debate are that I was born in an area such as we are discussing and grew up there. My mother, who is over 80, still lives there. Also, the area is on the margins of my constituency, so it is not distant from me in any way.
I wish to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) in a comradely fashion that kerb crawling is a serious problem that afflicts people living in Wandsworth and Lambeth. On another occasion he held up the Bromley London Borough Council (Crystal Palace) Bill which would have provided employment in my constituency. It had the support of the Bromley Labour group and was not opposed by either Southwark or Lambeth councils. He held up the Bill for about six months. If I held up Bills that affected his constituency, there would be some comradely distress, if not anger, about the behaviour of one hon. Member concerning the problems in another hon. Member's constituency or borough. I ask my hon. Friend to understand that we have a problem in my area and it needs to be addressed.
I do not dismiss the point that my hon. Friend made about civil liberties, which I shall discuss later. I hope that he understands that there is a serious problem for residents, and for women in particular. I hope that he will approach the Bill in that spirit. I hope that, if some compromise on civil liberties can be reached, he will find it acceptable and allow the Bill a reasonably rapid passage through the House.
So far, we have discussed the problem of residents, but there is also a problem for prostitutes. The life of the prostitute on the street is by no means a happy one. Frequently their money is taken from them at the end of the evening or the day's work. They are subjected to the most vicious violence. They are often drug addicts who are on the streets for that reason. Street prostitution, violence and extortion all go together. I believe that it is about time we shifted the balance to make the polluter pay, as it were. In this context, the polluter is the kerb crawler.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish said that there were other ways of approaching the problem of kerb crawling, such as providing street lighting, traffic schemes and the like. Lambeth is charge-capped. Unfortunately, we have a great deal of crime other than soliciting for prostitution. We are entitled 523 to judge where it is best to place our resources. A borough as hard-pressed as Lambeth, with problems of homeless-ness, cuts in education and so on, has better things to do with its money than pedestrianising Streatham high street and Bedford hill to deal with kerb crawling. We have better priorities for the use of our money and our police force. Therefore, I reject his argument in favour of the new clause.
The point about civil liberties must be borne in mind. Perhaps I could have the Minister's attention now. There is a risk that, without corroborative evidence—I moved an amendment in this respect in Committee—an innocent person could have his reputation ruined by a relatively trivial crime in the calendar of crimes. The Minister must address himself to that risk. There are several ways of dealing with it. I should have preferred to do it by building corroboration into the Bill. We went through that matter in Committee.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Bill has yet to go to another place. There is no reason why, in another place, they should not consider corroboration. That might be one way of reaching a compromise.
§ Mr. Fraser
I agree with that. I want to see the Bill go to another place. Perhaps my hon. Friend will intervene again to tell me that he too wants to see it go to another place.
The right way to deal with corroboration would be for the Attorney-General to give advice to the Crown prosecution service about conducting prosecutions. The safest protection would be to provide guidance such as that given on prosecutions for possession of drugs as opposed to supply. A warning or caution could be given in the first instance to a kerb crawler, with a new offence where no corroboration is required and no persistence or nuisance has to be involved. A caution or warning in the first instance that, on future occasions, the person could not plead innocence by saying that he had merely asked the way of a prostitute in an area such as Streatham would deal with the problem.
§ Mr. Mellor
As it is a matter of police practice, not a matter for me, I cannot undertake that that would be done. However, it is increasingly police practice that cautions are given when first offenders are arrested for relatively minor, though troubling, offences. That would be one option. When the moment comes, I intend to take the matter to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to discuss guidance to the CPS. Guidance on when a caution should be given and when it is appropriate to take action is certainly a sensible point for me to explore with him. That suggestion has much merit.
§ Mr. Fraser
I can conclude on this point. A process of warnings could be established in an effort to sieve cases before they come to court. Such a compromise should be accepted by the promoter of the Bill and those who have perfectly legitimate fears about civil liberties.
§ Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, West (Mr. Randall) 524 said, the majority of the House agrees that this is not a party issue. Listening to my hon. Friend, I was strongly reminded of the words of Cynthia Payne a week ago who made much the same point in a television debate in which I took part in Manchester. She said that prostitution was not a party issue. She had been raided as often when there was a Labour Government as when there was a Tory Government. As we have heard the vigour of my hon. Friend's condemnation of what has been happening in many parts of our cities, we can have no doubt that we all want to see it end. The point at issue is whether the Bill will achieve that. If I thought that it would, I would vote for it. However, no amount of silver-tongued oratory from the Minister of State will persuade me to vote for a Bill which I believe will fail to stop what is happening and may indeed make matters worse.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) I was born and grew up in Lambeth. As a child wandering around the streets at night with my mates I met and talked to the prostitutes. They were there a generation ago and I suspect that they were there two or three generations ago. When I became the GLC member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington there was an appalling problem of kerb crawling in Finsbury park. Once again that problem was not a party political issue. Sir Horace Cutler led a Conservative-controlled GLC at the time. I met members of his administration and with the backing of Hackney council, which was about 99 per cent. Labour at the time, we introduced an incredibly complicated road scheme to try to stop the kerb crawling. In the short-term there was some limited relief. However, I very much doubt whether that has continued.
We simply pushed the problem somewhere else. My constituents were happy for a while, but constituents elsewhere suffered similar problems. In London there seems to be a pattern of prostitution moving around a fairly regular circuit: Finsbury park to Tooting to King's Cross and to Shepherd market. I suspect that that route reflects the concentration of police effort.
After pressure of complaints in King's Cross, there was a major increase in policing the area and the problem moved elsewhere. Police pressure moves the problem around a city and we must be aware that attempts to resolve the problem in legislation have failed. We were told that the Sexual Offences Act 1985 would succeed, but it has not. We are now told that this Bill will resolve it. What will happen if it does not? What legislative measure will we take next?
The difficulty is that we are tackling the symptoms and not the cause. That is the Bill's failure. I want to see a society in which there are no prostitutes. I want a society in which no one buys sex and in which sex takes place between consenting adults and involves an act of love. However, that is not the world we live in and it will never be the world we live in. What should we do to mitigate the problems facing people in areas where kerb crawling occurs?
§ Mr. Randall
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill is about kerb crawling and kerb crawlers rather than about the merits or demerits of prostitution?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. I was tempted to reproach the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. 525 Livingstone) a little earlier, but I was reluctant to interrupt the flow of his speech. Hon. Members should address their remarks more closely to the new clause.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will allow me the discretion to range widely in the same way as the Front-Bench spokesmen who managed to refer to video nasties and the situation 180 years ago.
New clause 2 is the widest amendment for us to discuss today. If my points could be resolved, I would be happy to support the Bill. No one would disagree with the provision in the Bill to remove the nonsense that someone under the age of 14 cannot commit rape. The Bill would have the support of all hon. Members in the House if that was all that it did. However, the Bill does more than that and we must consider civil liberties.
We must balance the liberties and rights of residents in areas where life is blighted by the curse of kerb crawling with the liberties of ordinary innocent citizens who may be entrapped in a conviction which could destroy their lives. I believe that the majority of hon. Members would claim that the organisation Liberty is one of the most important champions of liberty in this country. It is not a party political organisation and it has the support of hon. Members on all sides of the House. That organisation wrote to hon. Members saying:We accept the need for some effective legislation to protect women from unwanted soliciting for the purposes of prostitution or other sexual harassment in public places. However, we have consistently opposed legislation which creates offences capable of proof by police evidence alone.That is the weakness of the Bill. The Minister begged us not to oppose the measure because we thought that it might be wrongly enforced. However, after the events of the past year, is that really a credible point to make?
I am not one of those people who believe that the majority of the police in our society are criminals who bend the law. That would be a travesty. The overwhelming majority of police officers in our society seek to do the best that they can, often in intolerable circumstances. However, they are not perfect any more than politicians are perfect. We are all aware of Members of Parliament and members of local councils who have been corrupt and broken the rules. That happens also among a small minority in the police. How can the Minister ask us to suspend judgment as to whether the Bill will be properly conducted in the wake of the scandal of the West Midlands serious crime squad?
§ Mr. Mellor
I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the nature of the evidence. I have already said that I believe that I can make points about prosecution practice later that will be helpful.
However, with regard to the hon. Gentleman's central point about a conviction purely on the basis of police evidence, although that may be undesirable from the hon. Gentleman's point of view, it is sometimes the inevitable consequence of the woman concerned having no interest in the administration of justice and therefore an extreme reluctance to come forward. Under the present law, there is no prohibition on police evidence alone. If a policeman was minded to gild the lily he would only have to say that he saw someone approach two people rather than one. I understood the force of the point when it was made five years ago. However, as I said earlier, after five years' experience of the Sexual Offences Act 1985 and after more than 1,000 prosecutions, I am completely unaware of any 526 suggestion that the Act has been used oppressively or that police evidence has been used to obtain corrupt convictions of people who should not have been convicted on the basis of police evidence.
The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) should not approach the issue as an academic point. If he cannot produce evidence to support his argument today, he should understand that his view is not an objection to the Bill becoming law.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I accept the Minister's argument that there will often be occasions when, in the effort to convict someone of a crime—perhaps a horrendous crime—there may only be police evidence. My basic presumption is that that practice should be reduced to the minimum and we should accept it reluctantly.
§ Sir William Shelton (Streatham)
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that under the 1985 Act the prosecution of kerb crawlers rests on police evidence only? The suggestion that "persistently" should be removed will not change that in any way. Police evidence alone leads to prosecution in such cases.
§ Mr. Livingstone
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I object to a further extension of that. By removing "persistent" prosecution becomes easier. It seems that in the past decade there has been a massive shift in the nature of legal practice in Britain and increasingly we see convictions based not on forensic evidence, but on police evidence alone or on confessions obtained in cells.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. We must get back to designated areas, which are the subject of the new clause.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I am coming to that. I have not the slightest doubt that local government is much more in touch with its area than national Government. The hon. Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) represents a constituency of 70,000 or 80,000 people; he keeps in touch with them, but not as well as the 15 or 17 local authority members who represent smaller areas, and whose reason for political activity is entirely connected with those areas. They are not diverted by foreign policy or macroeconomic policy.
The question of how best to defend an area is best left to a local authority. I say that as someone who came here reluctantly after my local authority was taken away. I always felt that I could achieve more for local people in local government than I could in central Government. It was only the erosion of the powers of local government that shifted my attention from a sphere in which it was no longer possible to achieve very much to questions of national Government.
I doubt that every local authority is fully up to the task of tackling the problem. However, I have no doubt that it is better for local government to make the decisions than for a national scheme to be imposed by centrally controlled legislation, monitored by the Government and covered by the Crown prosecution service. There will be differences, as there are differences in the areas of prostitution in London: for instance the pattern of prostitution in King's Cross differs from that in a constituency such as that of the hon. Member for Streatham.
527 I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West, who suggested that this was a class issue and that we were dealing only with the rich. A detailed study of the pattern of kerb crawling and prostitution, carried out in the early 1980s in King's Cross, showed that, rather than rich men in their Rolls-Royces driving into a poor area, relatively poor men were using the services of prostitutes.
§ Mr. Randall
My hon. Friend may recall that on Second Reading points were made about the research that had been carried out into the "social structure" of people who kerb crawl. That research showed—my hon. Friend can get the exact quote from Hansard—that most people who kerb crawl are in the class that I have described, namely those on highish incomes who have a car and can spend £100 without having to blink too hard.
§ Mr. Livingstone
That merely confirms my earlier assertion that there could be different patterns of prostitution within the same city. My hon. Friend's point was not that identified by the study into prostitution at King's Cross. The hon. Member for Streatham looks puzzled. Let me jog his memory: that study followed the occupation of a local church in 1982 by a group of prostitutes who were complaining about police harassment in the area.
Everyone who has spoken so far has pointed out that this is a specific local problem. Most hon. Members do not face the problem of prostitution in their constituencies; those who do will have found that the problem existed long before they became hon. Members. Perhaps only two or three dozen constituencies contain areas like King's Cross or Bedford hill. The problem would be better tackled locally, because a local administration in touch with local thinking could balance the consequences of taking action to designate an area in this way.
I said earlier that a week ago I had been in a debate with Cynthia Payne in Manchester for Granada television. I found that some local people in Liverpool had made a firm decision, taken the law into their own hands and driven prostitutes out of the area. That has also happened in other areas. The new clause would allow that local understanding to be brought to bear.
I know that many people doubt the ability of councils in this regard, and perhaps some councils could not do it. There might be problems in a hung council, and a temptation for parties to compete and try to upstage each other in the pursuit of local votes. However, I believe that the majority of local authorities would approach that responsibility with the seriousness that it deserves. I believe that it is better to shift the balance of power away from Whitehall and devolve it to local communities, which will be much more responsive. I do not know what Lambeth's response would be if it were given the power that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish proposes in his new clause. I suspect that it would support the proposals being introduced by the hon. Member for Streatham, but, it might not and there could be a long period of discussion and debate.
In the upheavals around King's Cross in the early 1980s there were many massively attended public meetings where local people argued the issue. They spoke of the harassment of women in the area, not just by kerb crawlers: violent threats were made by pimps when members of the local community sought to defend 528 themselves. What came out of those meetings was the importance of bringing together the interests of residents and prostitutes. Often there was no conflict, but they were all suffering from the pattern that had developed. I would like to see a more breathtaking but valid response to the problem. Instead of looking for an increase in repression and a widening of police powers, we should look to the social causes.
In the King's Cross study it was shown that there were two types of prostitutes operating: those who worked in the evening and organised by pimps, and those who worked during the day, who were basically "freelance". Virtually all the arrests were made during the daytime. There were some suggestions that that might show a degree of favouritism and bias by the police. Interestingly, the professional prostitutes, who had a much longer track record, referred to the new prostitutes—women who were just working one or two days a week in the afternoons—as "Thatcher's girls", because they had been forced into prostitution by a decline in income, lost jobs, or because their social security payments had not kept up with inflation. If the hon. Member for Streatham produced a Bill that tackled the social causes, we could perhaps end prostitution, but instead we are talking about a further scale of repression.
Local authorities have local knowledge. An authority that serves an area where there is a higher level of unemployment and economic distress will be much more sensitive and attuned to what is causing prostitution in its area than Ministers who issue statements, and who are isolated in London, surrounded by senior bureaucrats and cut off from day-to-day involvement with people's problems.
I once visited a society where women felt safe and there were no kerb crawlers. Conservative Members may find this unbelievable, but when I went to Cuba three or four years ago I found that no woman was frightened to be alone on the streets at night. That is not because Cuba has adopted the proposal of the hon. Member for Streatham or the new clause about putting prostitution under the control of local authorities. It is because in Cuba there is a different attitude to women. [Interruption.] I am sorry that Conservative Members laugh.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. We are not going around the world. This Bill applies to this country only.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I do not see how Cuba can be a designated area. Let us get back to those areas.
§ Mr. Livingstone
The new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish would be successful because a local authority would understand the problems of the area that it designated far better than central Government. The local authority may well reach the conclusion that social problems are the root cause of prostitution in its area and that it is better to tackle those problems. Therefore, it might decide not to designate an area. Local authority officials may decide to visit Cuba to adopt the methods used there that have done so much to make women safe on the streets. For a start, women's bodies in Cuba are not used to sell goods. There is a different attitude——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that this is a not a Second Reading debate. The Bill has had its Second Reading and we are now discussing a new clause that deals with the power of local authorities to designate areas. We should return to that new clause.
§ Mr. Corbyn
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When discussing the new clause, would it be in order to discuss also the problems that a local authority would face when deciding whether to designate an area, and such issues as the exploitation of women's bodies for commercial purposes?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The hon. Gentleman must not start to ask me what I might, in hypothetical circumstances, do about matters that may or may not be discussed. It is my responsibility to judge whether the content of a speech is in order or otherwise. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not seeking to encourage me to debate my ruling with him. I hope that the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) will heed what I have said.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I agree with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want a society in which there is no prostitution—a goal achieved voluntarily.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish has suggested that we can amend the Bill, but I believe that it might fail. I know that the hon. Member for Streatham seeks to do what is best for his constituents, but I am worried that he will raise their hopes with the Bill. In three years' time, when nothing has changed and just a few more pathetic men have been arrested, women will still be harassed. People will become embittered because they will believe that the Bill has led to no real improvement.
If I were convinced that the Bill would work I would vote for it. I believe that the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish would strengthen the Bill, but if we are to tackle the problem, there should be local control and a local understanding of it.
We have already spoken about video nasties, which are not directly relevant to this debate, and it is important to consider all possible alternatives to help solve the problem. If local authorities were given the power as set out in the new clause, they would be able to seek those alternatives.
§ Sir William Shelton
Surely the hon. Gentleman understands that the kerb crawlers and most of the prostitutes in my constitency do not live there. Whatever social problems there might or might not be in my constituency or in Lambeth, they have no relevance to the problems of the kerb crawlers or the prostitutes who live in a different area.
§ Mr. Livingstone
That is exactly the point—the basic problem cannot be simply be solved by the Bill. There is a social cause that must be addressed.
In the past few years, prostitution has increased and I am certain that the hon. Member for Streatham is aware that the situation has worsened in his constituency. In an Adjournment debate in 1989 he said:Over the past few years, a plague—a pollution—has struck a part of my constituency."—About certain streets he said:At night, they swarm with prostitutes."—[Official Report, 12 January 1989; Vol. 144, c. 1092.]That was a clear acknowledgement from the hon. Gentleman that the problem has got worse and it will continue to do so until we tackle the social problem.
530 11.15 am
The new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish is the first step towards giving local government real powers to deal with the problem. After a brief time, however, I am certain that the local authorities would say that social problems cause the distress and that those problems must be tackled instead of extending the scope of legislation to reduce civil liberties. Such legislation also carries the possibility of destroying the career of someone innocently caught up in a prosecution because he happened to be in the area and, in the eyes of a police officer, was behaving in a suspicious manner.
It is important to remember some of the scandals that have occurred in the past year. The Minister has told us that we should work on the assumption that the Bill will be implemented properly and that we should put out of our mind any possible abuse. I cannot accept that. The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot ask the House to assume that the laws passed by it are carried out perfectly. That is nonsense. Some of us have been leaders of local authorities. We sat at the top, issued edicts, but knew damn well that down at the grass roots they were not carried out in the way intended. The problem is even greater for central Government.
The Minister has told us that we should put out of our mind the idea that the Bill will not be properly implemented, but how can he reach that conclusion in a year that has witnessed the major scandal of the falsification of evidence by the West Midlands serious crime squad and the stunning decision to release the Guildford Four? Our policing system is not perfect any more than our political system. One cannot achieve perfection and the best that one can hope for is to strike a balance between the needs of the oppressed and the civil liberties of those people who may be caught up in a prosecution.
The new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish is a step towards ensuring the proper implementation of the Bill. Although I have reservations about the Bill, I am still prepared to vote for it, provided that some safeguards are introduced. The Minister echoed my concern as he assured the House that the pattern of prosecutions would be monitored because of the general worry that innocent people might be caught. If the Bill is so perfect, why must the Government monitor its implementation and ensure that it is not abused? It would be much better to get the Bill right and not accept something that is imperfect in the hope that we can rectify it later or rely on the Crown prosecution service to tidy it up. That is not good enough. We have a duty to ensure that the legislation we pass contains the checks and balances necessary to protect the individual. I accept, however, that it is every bit as important to protect people who are harassed daily on the streets.
I took action around the Finsbury park area of Stoke Newington to tackle kerb crawling and I believed that that would do the trick, but it failed. The traffic management did not work. At that time, I had the same ideas as the hon. Member for Streatham, that yet more controls, yet more laws and more policing would solve the problem. They do not. I failed to solve the problem in Finsbury park with that traffic management scheme. The traffic moved on, but from what I hear, the problem returned to Finsbury park as, gradually, the kerb crawlers learnt how to work their way around the new traffic management scheme.
531 Instead of constantly trying measure after measure that relies on extending the powers of the state and having more legal measures to tackle the problem, the House should consider going to the source of the problem, the social conditions that produce, not just prostitution, but those men who rely on prostitution and cannot develop fulfilling personal relationships.
The clause would push the debate down to local government and mean that the issue was being debated in council chambers across the country. Do we need more laws or should we consider social consequences? If that debate were taking place, I am certain that there would be a huge public consensus that considering social consequences was the way to tackle prostitution.
Earlier, the Minister of State referred to the growing consensus in the House about women's issues. I welcome that, but I do not think that it is growing fast enough. He talked about the need to protect women. It would be much easier to give expression to that belief if he were to come to the House with proposals to pass into law the ten-minute Bill that was the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) to remove page three, that daily diet of pornography that creates the climate in which men feel that they can buy women because they are available for them as and when they want. Why do not the Government do that?
If the Minister wants to protect women—I see his interest is such that he is leaving the Chamber rather than respond—he should introduce real protection for women and change the climate. As I said, in Cuba, women's bodies are not used to sell goods and pornography is not encouraged in virtually every shop, as it is here.
I have believed for some time that the major cause of the increase in rape cases—I believe that there has been an increase—has been page three, which has meant that generation after generation of young men have grown up, seeing that filth and assuming that the degrading way in which women are portrayed means that women are available to them as and when they want. Those are the men who go on to become kerb crawlers, incapable of forming equal relationships with women or of developing loving relationships with them. They end up crawling round the streets of Streatham or Finsbury park making life hell for everyone there. Those are the issues that we should consider in tackling the problem.
I am certain that if the legislation were amended in that way so that local authorities were debating the problem, those are issues with which they would return to the House. Local authorities that had had the problem on their plate, had tried to tackle it and failed, would come back to the House asking us to do something about page three to reduce the social causes of prostitution. I believe that those local authorities would also say that they would like better sex education in schools, which did not include merely discussions on the mechanics of sex, but ensured that another generation of kerb crawlers was not produced, and boys grew up in society aware that it was not just a matter ——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman once again that his speech seems more appropriate to Second Reading. I hope that he will address himself to the issue of designated areas, as provided for in the new clause.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I am glad that you bring me back to the point, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I was running through what conclusion I thought local authorities that were given the powers of designation would reach and what proposals they would make. Another aspect of designated areas is policing. Councils that have control over designation would also need to have control over policing and the ability to intervene to ensure that there was adequate policing in those areas. There would be no point in a local authority having the power of designation if it could not direct enough police resources into an area to ensure that the policy was carried out. In a sense, local authorities would take over the role that the hon. Member for Streatham and I carry out, as do all London Members. We pursue the police so that they provide the resources to tackle the problem.
I cannot remember whether it was on an Adjournment debate or Second Reading that the hon. Member for Streatham talked about the way in which the police had responded to his pressure, done their best under the present system and switched resources into the local areas, but it had not been enough. If we give local authorities the power of designation so that they are in control, we must also say to the police that they must respond to local authorities' decisions about the level of policing required.
I can talk only about London. Since the Government were elected 11 years ago there has been a massive increase in the numbers of police and in police pay in London. Sadly, there has also been a massive increase in crime and kerb crawling. In his Adjournment debate speech the hon. Member for Streatham identified that increase. Designated authorities may reach the conclusion that more local police are needed on the streets to prevent the problem.
In London there are more than 25,000 police officers, excluding the support staff who are not uniformed officers. I accept that they have to operate a three-shift system. No one would seriously want the police to work more than eight hours a day on average. In London we should have about five police officers available at any one time of the day in each ward of the city. If we had that and local authorities that had been given the powers of designation could say to their local police that they wanted them on the streets day by day, we could prevent the problem arising. It would be much better to prevent the problem by a visible police presence on the streets, as there was when I was a boy.
Where I grew up I did not go more than 10 or 15 minutes without seeing a police officer walking down the street. There was a constant police presence, and it deterred. It is no good dealing with a crime after it has been committed. A woman who has been scandalised by being approached by a kerb crawler is not cheered up very much by hearing that the character is going to be prosecuted and might be fined £100 or £500. She has been traumatised. In exactly the same way, heavier and heavier penalties for muggers will not bring back the joy that a pensioner has lost. The fear that lives with pensioners may mean that they never feel free to go on the streets again after they have been mugged.
Rather than constantly demanding more and heavier penalties, we should focus on prevention. Under the powers of designation, local authorities would argue strongly for a change in the pattern of policing. We should move away from the bureaucratisation of the police force so that the majority of local bobbies are on the street and 533 prevent crime by their presence. That would be a much more effective way of tackling kerb crawling. If five or six police officers were available in each ward every hour of every day, the problem would not arise. We would not be merely pushing the problem to another area. If we moved to genuine community policing, we could change the pattern and stop the problem occurring.
After considering and debating the problem, designated authorities would see that it is not just a matter of pushing it somewhere else or dealing with the social problems, because that would take time.
Perhaps the first thing that designated authorities would want to do would be to decriminalise prostitution so that prostitutes were not forced to concentrate in certain areas and they would not then need their pimps. I am not arguing for legalisation; I do not think that designated authorities would. The idea of state-run brothels would fill me with horror. In Germany—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that it does not satisfy the requirements of the Chair merely to keep inserting the phrase "designated authorities". I hope that he will recognise that this is a private Members' day and that we have another 16 private Members' Bills on the Order Paper. I have a duty to safeguard the interests of those hon. Members, so I very much hope that all hon. Members will bear in mind the rights and interests of other hon. Members.
§ Mr. Livingstone
I agree with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In this debate it is important that we preserve the rights of people who might be entrapped by the new legislation and whose lives might thereby be destroyed.
I have said what I wanted to say about the new clause, and I hope to speak again on later amendments.
§ Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)
I am sorry to have Missed the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), but I did hear his interventions later, and all the other speeches. I listened with great interest to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), but I must tell him that I am wholly opposed to the new clause, as I hope the whole House will be.
Those of us who represent constituencies in which kerb crawling has been a problem for many years know that the new clause contains nothing that will really tackle the problem. More importantly, the people who live in these areas, especially women, know that new clause 2 will offer them no protection. I hope that, if it is forced to a vote, it will be roundly defeated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East made great play of the idea of involving local councillors and local authorities, saying that they would know what to do. I have represented part of Wandsworth in this place for 20 years, during which control of the borough has been held by both Labour and Conservative parties. The problem of kerb crawling has been evident in this area since long before I became a Member of Parliament, and under councils run by both the major parties. The new clause refers to complaints from the public, to the police being satisfied that there is a problem of prostitution and of kerb crawling, and to all other reasonable steps having been taken to deal with the problem. However, I and other hon. Members who have represented the borough of 534 Wandsworth over the years have frequently been asked by leaders of the authority to seek action here in Parliament to try to end the problem.
There is no doubt that there have been many complaints by the general public. One of the first speeches that I ever made in this place was about the problem of prostitution and kerb crawling in the Bedford hill area of my constituency, a subject that I have spoken about many times since. I served on the Committee that scrutinised the 1985 Bill and on the Committee that dealt with this Bill. I know that local authorities can help—for instance, by providing better street lighting, by introducing one-way schemes that will stop drivers persistently driving around certain areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East rightly said that we need more police on the beat, but ultimately Parliament has to introduce legislation that the courts of this country can follow, and no amount of consultaton with local authorities, local ward councillors and the local community will solve the problem by itself.
We have heard a great deal this morning about the problems in my constituency, in that of the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) and in other parts of London, but the problem exists in many other parts of the country too. I notice that the hon. Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) is in his place; he served with me on the Committee that looked into the previous legislation on this subject and he outlined the problems in his area. Kerb crawling does not go on only in big cities; it is a problem in small towns too.
Today we have the opportunity to introduce legislation to strengthen that which is already in place, because what happened in the other place to the 1985 Act has led to problems that continue to this day.
We have heard a great deal about people's rights, and I support such rights, but I give greater support to the rights of women who live in my constituency and who need to be able to walk home without continual harassment and abuse from people who come into the area that I represent and, I am sure, into that represented by the hon. Member for Streatham. These people do not live in our areas: they come in from outside. They cause all the problems from which our constituents suffer. I have often been told by women in my constituency that age has nothing to do with it. Young girls going home or going to school, or retired ladies going shopping or going to a day centre, when walking in certain streets in my area are regarded by kerb crawlers as potential prostitutes. What has happened to their rights? They need protection from such harassment, which is why I fully support this Bill.
The Minister spoke about the collaboration of witnesses, but I was not much impressed by some of what he said. Over the years I and other hon. Members who have suffered these difficulties in our constituencies have tried to get legislation on to the statute book to solve the problem, but we have always been told that a review was under way and that the Government could not anticipate what suggestions it might contain. So for years there was no action. Then, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) introduced her Bill in 1985. To those of us who had campaigned for years against kerb crawling, her Bill offered the first ray of hope. It gave the police some authority to take action against kerb crawlers who came into our areas.
It sounds good to say that there must be collaboration before action can be taken against a kerb crawler, but before the legislation was enacted, local community 535 groups in my constituency tried protesting and hassling prostitutes and their minders off our streets. But they suffered a great deal of abuse; their cars were attacked, as was their property. Some windows were broken late at night, but no action could ever be taken against the perpetrators.
Of course we have to protect the individual's rights. The Minister quoted a report from today's edition of The Times. It appears that a person who has been convicted of kerb crawling can go to the High Court with an articulate barrister and be acquitted. By all means we should protect individual rights, but the Bill is about protecting the communities that we try to represent. It will certainly protect women.
I have discussed these matters with the local police and with a wide variety of people who live in the affected area of my constituency. They fully support what the Bill seeks to do. It ill becomes my hon. Friends to say in one breath that they want to protect the rights of women and then to point to things that happen in one country or another. Of course we have to look at such things, but the real test is whether my hon. Friends are concerned about the rights of women to walk safely on our streets. They should not attempt to insert this clause, and they should not try to talk out the Bill. If they do so, the wrath of the people that I represent and the constituents of the hon. Member for Streatham will descend on them.
This is an opportunity for us to tighten the legislation and all hon. Members should warmly welcome that. The Bill will tackle the problem of kerb crawling and the new clause would not do that. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) said that the new clause would remove the guts of the Bill. If my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish is truly concerned about the rights of women, he should not seek to delay or destroy the Bill.
§ Mr. Corbyn
I apologise to the House for not being present to hear the opening speeches in the debate. I was delayed on constituency business. I represent that part of the Finsbury Park area which is in Hackney. I also live in that area, and I am familiar with the problems of prostitution and kerb crawling and the harassment of women throughout that area. Those problems are frequently brought to my attention in my surgery and by correspondence.
We are debating the designation of areas. Based on experience, publicity, police records and attempted prosecutions, the Finsbury Park area would have been designated in the past—I am not so sure about now—within the meaning of the new clause proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). Would designation of that area be of assistance or would it merely create a further problem? The local authority would be presented with the possibility of designating that area. There would inevitably be a great deal of public discussion, during which I can imagine the sort of reporting in which some of the more salacious newspapers would engage. I can also imagine the sort of discussion that would take place in some parts of the media.
In that period of discussion, the kind of voyeurism that exists throughout London at the moment and which is seen in other parts of Europe where there are no red light 536 districts would greatly increase, as would the harassment of women. We have had such problems for a long time. Not long ago, a woman was molested while walking in the Finsbury park area. When the case finally came to court, the magistrate more or less said that she should not have been walking on her own at night in that area because she should have known that it was a sort of red light district. That approach is not helpful. In effect the magistrate was saying that people should not walk the streets at night when they know the sort of area that they are in.
What will be the effects of designation after the debate and furore surrounding it have died down? It could mean considerably more police activity in an area, but such activity could be increased anyway and does not require designation. Will a designated area be a kind of magnet for pimps, and will prostitution increase? It would probably make the situation worse. Public designation of areas such as King's Cross, Shepherd's Market, Finsbury park and some parts of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), as a result of newspaper reporting, has not improved the situation. It has increased the problem for women walking around those areas. The designation of an area is of no assistance at all.
When does one lift the designation? How does one decide whether an area is designated, and by what criteria are the statistics drawn together? The new clause says:An area may be designated by a local authority if(a) complaints are made by the general public and(b) the police are satisfied there is a problem of prostitution and kerb-crawling and(c) all other reasonable steps have been take to deal with the problem.I do not want to incur your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by going wide of the mark, but we have had experience of legislation that made it easy to build up a case that was apparently based on the effective use of statistics showing that there was a problem to be dealt with and that legal action had to be taken. I think, for example, of the introduction of visas for people from Bangladesh coming to this country. Plainly, that was done using statistics that were based on the fact that immigration officers asked more people from Bangladesh than from any other country why they were coming to Britain. On that basis, it was deemed to be a problem. On what basis can an objective decision be made that there is a problem in a certain area?
There is also the matter of the objectivity of complaints from the general public. I do not doubt that prostitution is a serious problem in my constituency and in the constituencies of other hon. Members. I also know that a person who is having a dispute with his neighbour for goodness knows what reason may tell us at the end of the conversation, "By the way, the house is full of prostitutes and it is a serious problem." There is no way of checking that or of dealing with it. It is simply given out as a complaint. If it is referred to the police, it is probable that nothing could be proved one way or the other, but it is recorded as a complaint and is used as part of the statistics for building up a case for designating an area.
Legislation should be correctly drafted and able to achieve its intentions. It should not cause problems for people who should not be affected by the legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) gave a good analogy in Committee of the way in which the Official Secrets Act passed through the House in 1911, 537 when there was deemed to be a problem. There might have been, but there has been a far bigger one since. I want to see legislation that will protect women and that does not designate areas as red light or red line districts, thereby exacerbating the problem. I hope that we can succeed in that aim.
The new clause also says:Any designations shall remain in force for three years, but may be renewed thereafter.Three years is quite a long time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East explained—at one time he was a member of the Greater London council and represented the area, so he is aware of the problems in Finsbury park—the traffic management schemes introduced on the Hackney side of the Blackstock road had a considerable effect. Few people could find their way into the area, and if they did, they could not get out. There is a permanent traffic jam there, with the result that there is no kerb crawling.
Unfortunately, the traffic management scheme moved the problem somewhere else—to the other side of the Blackstock road, to Stamford Hill and then on to other parts of London. Designation is not the way to solve the problem. It probably makes it far worse, for the reasons that I have outlined. Nor does designation solve the problems that lead to prostitution—for example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) has said, commercial exploitation of women's bodies in advertisements. I know that Conservative Members apparently do not take these matters seriously, but I do, because the way that women are perceived in advertisements and so on has a knock-on effect and ends in the harassment of women in the streets by kerb crawlers and the like.
I have no sympathy for kerb crawlers—they are a menace—but it is important that legislation introducing prosecution of people scouting round London looking for commercial sex also protects the innocent. The protection of women is done no good if legislation is so badly drafted and incompetently presented that it amounts to the right to harass anyone who happens to be looking for the way. It is important to get these things right. If we get them wrong, we shall have done nothing to solve the problems of kerb crawling and prostitution but will have created a greater problem, affecting the right of individuals to walk or drive around streets unmolested. London has already experienced the sus law and I do not want to see harassment returning in another form through a quirk of badly drafted legislation.
§ Sir William Shelton
I regret that I was unable to contact the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), but I have been abroad with the Council of Europe and arrived back only yesterday. I should have wished to discuss these matters with him.
I agree with the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) that new clause 2 is not the sensible way to proceed. Like the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, I wish women to be protected, and designated areas will reduce protection. With them, a woman walking with her daughter along one side of the street would be protected by the criminal law while another woman walking on the other side of the street would not be protected. That must be wrong. Furthermore, if the House has decided that a certain activity is a crime, surely it is a crime wherever it 538 occurs, not just in an area that happens to be designated by a local authority. I ask the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish to withdraw his new clause.
Since Second Reading, I have been inundated with hundreds of thousands of letters of support from individuals, from councils and from various organisations and bodies. The hopes of many people are riding on a successful outcome of today's proceedings. I ask the hon. Member and his colleagues not to talk out the Bill. I know that they can do that, and I would not be able to stop them, but they would disappoint not only my constituents but, for example, people in Merseyside. This morning, "Breakfast News" had a programme about the Bill, arid local radio stations are monitoring our debates. The attention of many families who are trapped in their homes by kerb crawlers, of women whose daughters are solicited and who themselves are solicited and who must be protected, is focused on us. These 14 amendments and two new clauses remove protection rather than adding to it.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
At the beginning of our proceedings, I made it clear that I understand the strong feelings of people who live in areas subjected to such harassment. I make that clear again. Some solution to the problem must be found, but I am worried that a large number of people are pinning their hopes on simply making it easier to prosecute and on a small increase in fines. I am not convinced that that will solve the problems of kerb crawling and prostitution. We should not be raising hopes too high.
It is always dangerous for Members of Parliament to be so carried along in a wave of anger and disgust at a particular problem that they impose legislation that does not solve the problem. I still have to be convinced that this legislation will solve the problem. If we pass the Bill, we shall be telling people in the areas affected not to worry because it will solve the problem in the next couple of years. I am not convinced of that.
I am interested in what the Minister said about trying to meet the legitimate points made about civil rights. He made it clear from the start that he was worried about this, and he has far greater experience of this than we have because he served on the Committee considering the 1985 Act. He said that he would come up with something on a later group of amendments.
§ Mr. Mellor
I am grateful for that conciliatory thought. As we know that that is the nub of the matter—far more than what we are discussing now—I would be only too happy if I were allowed to intervene briefly. I feel confident that, if the hon. Member were satisfied on that point, the progress on later amendments would be quicker and easier. If I could, with the leave of the House, speak again, it might speed the passage of the Bill.
§ Mr. Bennett
I was about to suggest that we voted on the new clause and that, during the Division, we discussed informally what was being suggested. That may be the most helpful way to proceed. Therefore, I shall press the new clause to a vote.
§ Mr. Mellor
With the leave of the House, I would be only too happy to follow up any suggestion, but this should be a public process, because we are in a publicly accountable institution. I understand the concerns that there will always be that, in our enthusiasm to convict the guilty, we should not put the innocent at risk. The record 539 will show that my concern on this matter, as expressed for instance in my membership of the Committee considering the legislation that got rid of the sus laws, means that my commitment is more than rhetorical.
The requirement of persistence makes it extremely difficult to obtain a conviction in an otherwise clear cut case. That is why more than 9,000 women were arrested and convicted of soliciting, but only 570 men were arrested under the 1985 Act last year. It was predicted that that requirement would seriously handicap the enforcement of the law, and it has. I read out The Times law report of the Darroch case, which showed that a clear single act of solicitation was not enough to grant a conviction, because persistence was absent.
§ Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend saw the television programme broadcast by London Weekend Television some 12 or 18 months ago, emphasising how difficult it was to achieve prosecutions in Streatham for that reason.
§ 12 noon
§ Mr. Mellor
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that helpful point.
I am anxious to ensure that we pass effective law. If someone has committed a clear act of solicitation, there is no reason why they should be required to do it twice to be convicted, any more than there is a requirement for someone to snatch a handbag on two occasions before he can be convicted of an act of robbery. The concern is how the law will be enforced.
I realise that there have been one or two instances in which people have protested about the manner in which the law has been enforced, but they have been isolated cases and there is certainly no evidence that the uncorroborated evidence of police officers has led to any injustice. If there is concern that someone will gild the lily and invent evidence, it is just as easy to invent two acts of solicitation. The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) made it clear that there is more concern about the framework in which the prosecution process is carried out.
I said in 1985, and I am happy to repeat now, that, wherever possible, the woman should come to court and give evidence. That is undoubtedly the way in which police forces go about their business. However, we have to bear in mind two problems. First, if the woman concerned is a prostitute, the last thing that she will want to do is give evidence to secure the conviction of one of her customers. It would not be in her interest to do so, and I can think of half a dozen reasons why she would not want to come forward. It does not discredit the police in any way that in those circumstances they could not enlist the support of the woman.
Secondly a woman who is not a prostitute, but is accosted as if she were, may be reluctant to come forward because of the disproportionate amount of publicity that she might attract. I hope that, in those circumstances, public-spirited women would come forward, but I can well understand why they might not. Therefore, it would not be right for Parliament to create a legal framework making it a necessity for a conviction that the woman concerned should give evidence. It is possible that other forms of corroboration might be available, but it is quite difficult to imagine who else would be on the scene.
540 However, I can make some helpful points about the framework in which we should set the legislation. After a week on the Broadcasting Bill, I would not be here unless I believed that the element of persistence in the offence is a major reason why the law has never been effective. I have no other interest in the matter. After all, I should have loved to believe that, by some miracle, the 1985 Act, on which I spent considerable time, would do the trick. In my heart of hearts, I knew that it would not, and five years on I can say categorically that it has not worked. However, I am not insensitive to the points at the heart of the debate.
I should like to make three points. First, I certainly undertake to find some way of monitoring acquittal rates to find out whether there was evidence of inappropriate cases being brought to courts. I understand the embarrassment being caused by the public knowledge that someone has been arrested. Secondly, I am prepared to explore with the Crown prosecution service the possibility of monitoring the proportion of charges in which it is decided not to proceed. That would ascertain whether too many people were being arrested. Thirdly, I will undertake to discuss with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General the guidelines applicable to the Crown prosecution service and ask him to consider whether they could sensibly be amended to reflect the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) about the possible oppressive use of an amended offence.
The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind the fact that, as a result of one of the Bills in which I was involved, the creation of the Crown prosecution service has separated the business of investigation from the business of prosecution and has provided a filter. It is quite possible that that process will produce the decision that some cases should be dealt with by a caution rather than by going to court. It is quite clear that the Crown prosecution service should carefully vet arrests to make absolutely sure that proceedings are not brought if a case will not stand up to scrutiny.
I reiterate that, wherever possible, independent evidence should be brought forward, but we must recognise that that will not always be possible. I believe that we can create a framework for prosecution practice and a system of monitoring the use of the law that will allow us to know within a sensible period whether we had done the right thing—as the majority of Members believe—or whether we had gone one step too far.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that no one's amour propre or ego is involved. I believe that we can create a framework that would allow us to determine whether we have got it wrong or gone too far. I would not have a leg to stand on if the evidence that I put before the House that can be elicited in parliamentary questions or in any other way were to determine that something had gone awry. But I am quite sure that the innocent motorist who merely stopped to ask the way would not fall foul of the law.
In practical terms, a court is unlikely to convict except in three possible circumstances, such as the presence of the woman to say what the motorist really said—if there was merely a conversation, no one would know what was said unless the woman came forward. If the man asked, "Which way to the Dog and Duck, darling? I'm lost and I'm a stranger round here", the woman has to say that he really said, "How much, love?"; or a policeman has to be so close that he can hear what was said even if the woman is a prostitute who is not prepared to come forward—an 541 unlikely situation; or the individual concerned has to do it more than once. Even if persistence is not a requirement as a matter of law, it may be necessary to demonstrate a pattern of behaviour that clearly and unequivocally establishes a desire to solicit rather than an innocent question asking the way.
Now we are getting to the heart of the matter, I would be resentful only if it were to he thrown back in our faces. The record will show that all this is well-tilled ground and was predictable and predicted; nevertheless, we should take a proper view of the civil rights involved while offering affected communities much-needed redress. I hope that I have struck a balance that will help the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends to decide what they want to do.
§ Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
§ The House divided: Ayes nil, Noes 45.
|Division No. 202]||[12.08 pm|
|Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Mr. Ken Livingstone and|
|Mr. Andrew F. Bennett.|
|Atkinson, David||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Patnick, Irvine|
|Bowis, John||Pendry, Tom|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Randall, Stuart|
|Carrington, Matthew||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)||Ruddock, Joan|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Cox, Tom||Shelton, Sir William|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Skinner, Dennis|
|Durant, Tony||Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)|
|Fallon, Michael||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|Foster, Derek||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Fraser, John||Summerson, Hugo|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||Thorne, Neil|
|Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall)||Viggers, Peter|
|Knapman, Roger||Waller, Gary|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Lightbown, David||Wood, Timothy|
|Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Marshall, John (Hendon S)||Mr. Graham Bright and|
|Mellor, David||Mr. James Arbuthnot.|
|Miller, Sir Hal|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.