HC Deb 03 November 2003 vol 412 cc544-59

'In paragraph 33 of Schedule 2 to the Sexual Offences Act 1956 (c.69) (mode of prosecution, punishment etc. for offences under section 33 of that Act)—

  1. (a) for the entries in the second and third columns substitute—
  2. (i) On indictment Seven years
    (ii) Summarily Six months, or the statutory maximum or both";
  3. (b) omit the entry in the fourth column.'.— [Paul Goggins.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins)

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

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment No. 142, in clause 48, page 28, line 14, leave out 'against a person under 16 is liable'.

Amendment No. 143, in clause 48, page 28, line 16, leave out subsections (5) and (6).

Government amendment No. 47.

Amendment No. 186, in clause 57, page 30, line 38, at end insert— '(c) a person who has been subject to trafficking into the UK for sexual exploitation shall be granted the opportunity of remaining in safe accommodation in the UK for a period of up to 6 months.'. Government amendment No. 48.

Amendment No. 49, in clause 59, page 31, line 22, leave out from 'he' to 'done' in line 24 and insert 'believes that another person is likely to do something to or in respect of B, after B's departure but in any part of the world, which if'.

Amendment No. 138, in schedule 2, page 80, line 17, leave out '48' and insert '49'.

Amendment No. 139, in schedule 2, page 80, line 27, at end insert— '(e) an offence under section 48 where the victim of the offence was under 18 at the time of the offence.'. Amendment No. 140, in schedule 3, page 84, line 39, leave out '16' and insert '18'.

Amendment No. 141, in clause 86, page 45, line 17, after 'Kingdom', insert 'for any period'.

Amendment No. 135, in clause 115, page 63, line 2, after 16', insert 'or 18'.

Amendment No. 136, in clause 115, page 63, line 3, after 16', insert 'or 18'.

Amendment No. 137, in clause 116, page 63, line 26, after '15', insert '29,'.

Government amendments Nos. 74, 134 and 114.

Paul Goggins

This first group covers the areas of sexual exploitation and trafficking New clause 2 raises the maximum penalty available for the offence of keeping a brothel at paragraph 33 of schedule 2 to the Sexual Offences Act 1956 from three months imprisonment, or six months for a second or subsequent offence, to seven years imprisonment. That brings it into line with our exploitation of prostitution offences in clauses 53 and 54, adding to the ability of the police to tackle the serious sexual exploitation of adults involved in prostitution.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

I wholly agree with what my hon. Friend is saying, but in the provision there is an assumption that we all know what a brothel is, and I am sure that he is aware that that is somewhat uncertain in law. Indeed, under section 6 of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 a brothel would include anywhere to which people resorted for the purpose of lewd homosexual practices. I wonder whether my hon. Friend intends at any point to reform the law so that it is a bit clearer on precisely what a brothel is.

Paul Goggins

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already announced a review of prostitution and one of the issues that that review may consider is a definition, but my hon. has raised the matter with me privately as well as on the Floor of the House. He has some concerns that the proprietors of commercial gay saunas, for example, may be caught by the new clause. I make it absolutely clear that we intend at Lords consideration of Commons amendments to restrict the use of the seven-year penalty to those cases that involve prostitution. I hope that that offers my hon. Friend some assurance.

In formulating our offences in this area, we were keen to ensure that the law is focused on genuinely exploitative behaviour. It was for that reason that the sexual offences review recommended the repeal of the offence of -man living on the earnings of prostitution" in section 30 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, and why we created the offences in clauses 53 and 54. In Committee, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration underlined that these offences were designed to tackle the problems of on-street pimps who exploit prostitutes in their control.

The offences are also designed to tackle those who cause, incite or control the prostitution of others in any circumstances, whether that is on-street prostitution or off-street in brothels or in any other place. However, it has come to our attention that the police were not confident that the prosecution would always be able to make out the element of "control" in our new offences where the owner of a brothel, or multiple brothels, might be exploiting several prostitutes at their premises—and making a considerable amount of money out of it—hut putting himself at a distance from the actual running of the premises.

We have said throughout consideration of the Bill that the issue of brothels is outside the scope of this Bill and should be looked at in the wider context of the review of prostitution that I have mentioned. Having discussed the matter with the police, we feel that the best way to tackle this possible difficulty is to raise the penalty for the offence of keeping a brothel in section 33 of the 1956 Act to give the police another offence with a substantial penalty effectively to target those who exploit the prostitution of others in this way.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

The Under-Secretary will agree that there is a clear distinction between living off earnings and controlling activities. It might have been possible to make section 30 gender-neutral with a reference to "any person" who lives off the earnings of a prostitute, irrespective of whether that was a man or a woman. Was there any particular reason why the Government did not adopt that course?

Paul Goggins

We did not adopt that course because quite innocent third parties could be caught technically by the offence of living off the earnings of prostitution—for example, somebody earning an income from prostitution and using the money to help send a daughter to college or to help a member of the family in some other way. That is one of the reasons why we felt it important to move on. We will look at the area in greater detail in considering the legislation on prostitution.

Subsection (b) of new clause 2 and the other Government amendments in this group—Nos. 74, 134 and 114—are merely consequential and minor drafting amendments as a result of new clause 2, and simply ensure that references elsewhere in this Bill and other legislation relating to section 33 of the 1956 Act are up to date.

The purpose of Government amendments Nos. 47, 48 and 49 to the trafficking offences in clauses 57 to 59 is to ensure that the offences can be used effectively to prosecute all those who arrange or facilitate the process of trafficking, believing that someone else is going to commit a sexual offence against the victim. As drafted, the offences require a higher threshold of criminality, namely, that the defendant must intend to facilitate the third person's commission of an offence against the victim. We have been persuaded that it would be very difficult in many cases to prove this intention, with the result that many of those who take part in this horrendous trade, fully aware of what will happen to the victim at the end of the process, could be beyond the reach of the criminal law.

As the House is aware, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 introduced new offences of trafficking for the purposes of controlling someone in prostitution. These made it an offence for a person to arrange or facilitate the arrival, travel within the UK once arrived, or departure from the UK of another person, when either he intended to exercise control over that person's prostitution or he believed that another person was likely to do so. That is a lower threshold than the offences currently in the Bill and, on reflection, we have concluded that the lower threshold is the correct one.

We are striving to ensure that different levels of involvement in prostitution and exploitation are reflected in a range of different offences with appropriate penalties and I urge the House to accept the Government amendments.

Amendment No. 186, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, would add a statutory requirement that all victims of trafficking as defined by the Bill be given the opportunity of remaining in safe accommodation in the United Kingdom for up to six months. I sympathise with the sentiments behind the amendment, but we believe that the application of a blanket period of leave for those who claim to have been the victims of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation would not be appropriate.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

The intention of the amendment is to give an opportunity for a period of up to six months; there is nothing "blanket" about it. The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said in Committee that each case should be considered individually, and our amendment makes provision for that.

Paul Goggins

I agree that each case must be considered on its individual merits, and I can offer the hon. Lady the assurance that no action will be taken by the immigration service while a case is being assessed. However, it is important that we do not have any blanket provisions, and we must always watch for potential abuse of a system which, although designed to help vulnerable people, could be exploited by others.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

I am disappointed that the Minister is being so dismissive, because there are other countries that, despite having an immigration problem, seem to be able to distinguish between illegal immigration and trafficking. The two are different, and we are in danger of lumping trafficking in with all the other forms of immigration. None of us would be happy to go down that road.

Paul Goggins

I assure the hon. Lady that I am far from being dismissive, and perhaps if she listens to my further comments she will be more reassured.

We need a strong focus on victims of trafficking and we are committed to ensuring that they are treated properly. We discussed this matter at length in Committee, and as we said then, a six-month pilot project offering support and, where necessary, accommodation to women who have been trafficked into the United Kingdom for sexual exploitation was launched in London on 10 March. It has now been extended to the end of the year to allow more time for evaluation. The project is managed on behalf of the Home Office by Eaves Housing for Women, a voluntary organisation with long experience of assisting women deemed to be vulnerable as a result of homelessness, drug or alcohol dependency, mental health issues or domestic violence, and which is well able to deal with these very vulnerable women.

Women will be permitted to remain here on temporary admission while they are on the project, but they will be expected to return to their own countries in due course. In this context, I should point out that a voluntary assisted returns programme has been developed by the immigration and nationality directorate, and the project will be managed jointly by the immigration service and a specialist non-governmental organisation.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, notwithstanding the appalling circumstances suffered by adults who are trafficked into this country for sexual exploitation, the position is particularly difficult with regard to children? Does he agree that although work is being done, a great deal more needs to be done throughout the country to assist those children and ensure that protective legislation such as the Children Act 1989 takes precedence over immigration and asylum legislation?

Paul Goggins

My hon. Friend is a great champion of children and children's rights, and I am sure that we shall hear more from him as the debate proceeds. I can confirm that there is a great deal of work already taking place in social services departments, the police and many other agencies, which all treat such issues very seriously and want to give children the kind of protection and support that my hon. Friend has mentioned.

The pilot scheme to which I referred is supported by the advisory group on the victims of trafficking, which includes representation from the Home Office, the immigration service, the police, social services and nongovernmental organisations. The project is being evaluated by the Home Office research development statistics unit, and a report is expected in the spring of next year.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

Does the Minister believe that the fight against trafficking for sexual exploitation is being won, and if—despite the efforts being made—he does not, does he recognise that one problem is the unwillingness of victims to come forward, for fear of reprisals in this country and in their country of origin? Does he therefore feel that it might be more sensible to give them the reassurance of a guaranteed safe house? It would be easier to do that than to rely on their knowing whether or not a pilot scheme is being extended, worthy though such schemes may be.

Paul Goggins

Initially, we have to see how well the project works, and as I said it is being evaluated to establish the strengths of this approach. It would be a very bold politician who said that we are winning the battle against trafficking, but this Government have made it absolutely clear that we are determined to fight that battle. Of course, part of that is the need to provide support, counselling and various services for the women who get caught up in this dreadful trade, but we will evaluate the project and develop the resulting practice in due course. I hope that I have reassured Members on both sides of the House that we are taking appropriate action and that the amendment is therefore not necessary.

I come briefly to amendments Nos. 140, 142 and 143, which are in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and others. Existing criminal law relating to prostitution focuses only on the activities of prostitutes themselves, or on those who exploit them, such as their pimps. Although it is currently unlawful to engage in sexual activity with a child aged under 16, we are for the first time making it an offence specifically to buy the sexual services of a child. As drafted, the offence carries three bands of penalties, depending on the age of the child-victim and the type of sexual service paid for. For penetrative sexual activity involving a child under 13, an offender could face life imprisonment and would have to comply with the notification requirements of part 2. For non-penetrative sex with a child under 13, or any type of sex with a child aged 13 to 16, the offence carries a maximum penalty of 14 years. Again, that reflects the seriousness of the crime. A conviction or caution received for such an offence would require an adult offender to comply with the notification requirements of part 2.

For any type of sexual services bought from a child aged 16 or 17, an offender faces a maximum of seven years in prison and is not required to comply with the notification requirements. In effect, amendments Nos. 142 and 143 would increase that penalty to a maximum of 14 years, and amendment No. 140 would put such offenders on the sex offenders register. I continue to agree that the sexual exploitation of children up to the age of 18 through prostitution should be a concern of the criminal law; however, I cannot support these amendments. I do not believe it proportionate to have the same maximum penalty for the offence once the child is aged 16 or 17—which, in the end, is above the age of consent—and nor should such offenders become subject to the notification requirements. Likewise, we cannot justify putting people on the sex offenders register if they have paid for sexual activity with 16 or 17-year-olds. I have no doubt that such activity is exploitative and should be a criminal offence, but I am not convinced that offenders of this kind pose such a risk that they should automatically be subject to the notification requirements. Of course, it is possible for the courts to make a sexual offences prevention order on such offenders if they believe that the order is necessary to protect the public from serious sexual harm. Such an order would oblige the offender to comply with the notification requirements.

Amendments Nos. 135 to 137—also in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and others—would extend the definition of "qualifying offender", for the purposes of foreign travel orders, to include offenders with a previous conviction for the offence of paying for the sexual services of a child aged 16 or 17. The amendments would also enable the court to make a foreign travel order, where it is satisfied that it is necessary to prevent the offender from committing a sexual offence against someone aged 16 or 17 overseas.

Those issues were discussed in Committee and I can assure the House that I have given them very serious consideration. I categorically agree that sex tourism is wrong. I cannot imagine that anyone in the House would not view as despicable the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young men, women and children in some of the poorest parts of our world. I can assure the House that the Government are committed to working with non-governmental organisations, other Governments and international organisations to combat this evil.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I entirely understand the rationale for the Minister's differentiation between those who are under 16 and those who are over it, although inevitably it will be a matter of some controversy. However, would the Minister at least acknowledge, if it is the case, that resources have entered his thinking? There is no embarrassment or shame about that, but was it not a relevant factor in determining the conclusion that the Minister appears to have reached?

Paul Goggins

I can say categorically that resources have not remotely entered my consideration of the matter. The key factor is the age difference: a 16 or 17-year-old is above the age of consent and, although a degree of criminality about the activity remains, a degree of proportionality is required. Having 16 as the age of consent is an issue to which I am sure we will return later in our deliberations today.

The foreign travel order has been crafted specifically as a response to one particularly abhorrent part of sex tourism—UK paedophiles travelling abroad to sexually exploit young children under 16. We all know that young children are particularly vulnerable to sex tourism because paedophiles do not face the same threat of detection, prosecution and sentencing that they would in the UK, and the opportunities to abuse children are far greater in some countries than here. I believe that the issue of paedophile sex tourism is so serious and so despicable that it warrants a particularly rigorous response.

I am concerned that the amendments, however well intentioned, will not work. To take out a foreign travel order, it needs to be established that the offender intends to commit the equivalent of a schedule 3 offence abroad. Obviously, for children aged under 16, any sexual activity is covered, because any sexual activity with a child is a serious sexual offence. However, 16 and 17-year-olds can consent to most sexual activity.

Sandra Gidley

In some countries the age of consent is completely different, so should we not err on the side of caution and use 18 rather than 16 as a benchmark? Eighteen is the age of consent in some countries around the world, so would not greater consistency help to reinforce the message that something might be right in this country, but wrong in another? Is there not a danger of condoning it?

Paul Goggins

At one level the age of consent is an arbitrary figure. The hon. Lady is right to point out that it is different in different countries, but it is interesting that some people press me to use 18 as the age of consent in some respects, but in others they press me to make dispensation in certain circumstances for a lower age of consent. Having 16 as the age of consent in this country is well established, well understood and well supported by the people of this country, and it is important to stick to it and ensure that our laws reflect it.

To return to my speech, it will be difficult to ascertain, for the purposes of the foreign travel order, whether an offender intends to travel abroad to commit a sexual offence or to engage in consensual sexual activity with a person over the age of consent. I agree that we need to tackle sex tourism where the victims are aged 16 or over and there is a great deal of practical work on which my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development are giving a lead in this area, and we are reflecting on what else we can do in support. However, the foreign travel order has been crafted specifically to protect those under 16 and it simply will not work if we try to extend it to cover those aged under 18. Similar arguments apply to amendments Nos. 138 and 139.

Amendment No. 141, also tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre, seeks to change the foreign travel notification requirements so that a registered sex offender would be required to notify the police of any intended period of foreign travel. The House will be aware that the foreign travel of registered sex offenders has attracted much debate during the passage of this Bill through Parliament. Indeed, as a result of considerable debate in the Lords and a consultation with interested parties, Lord Falconer announced the Government's intention to reduce from eight to three days the period for which a registered sex offender can travel abroad without notifying the police. We maintain that it is not necessary to reduce that period further.

We have consulted with key organisations on the issue of the foreign travel notification requirements, including the major charities working on the issue and the law enforcement agencies. The consultation looked at whether sex offenders should be required to notify all foreign travel, but it concluded that that would add little in terms of increased public protection from sex tourists. I should make it clear that the overriding purpose of notification requirements is to monitor the whereabouts of registered offenders, not to prevent travel abroad. The burden that such a requirement would place on offenders would be disproportionate to the minimal benefit that it would bring to public protection. Therefore, I believe that when the secondary legislation is made on this issue, we should set the period at three days.

I hope that what I have said in response to this group of amendments has gone some way to convince hon. Members that in these respects the Bill should remain as drafted.

Mr. Grieve

I listened with great interest to what the Minister had to say about new clause 2, and it certainly appears to be an improvement on the previous position, when the Government relied on clause 54. They have now responded to the representations of the police. However, without being unsympathetic to what the Minister is trying to achieve, I raised briefly in an intervention an issue that the House should consider.

Previously, under section 30 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, it was an offence to live off the earnings of a prostitute. The offence did not require any control to be exercised over the prostitution. The person concerned simply had to know that the person off whose earnings he was living was a prostitute and that he was benefiting from prostitution. It therefore had the effect of catching people who might be far removed from the control of a brothel or individual prostitutes, but who knew what was going on and tolerated the situation to their advantage. I accept that the clause could potentially catch a prostitute's child who, for example, was receiving private education as a result of his mother's activities, but I suspect that such prosecutions rarely happened in reality.

The Minister started by relying on clause 54, which requires the intentional control of a prostitute's activities for gain. Control clearly implies a close connection between the person concerned and the activities of the prostitute, and the clause is principally aimed at pimping. The Minister will know that the police raised anxieties about that because they felt that in many cases it might be desirable that a prosecution could be brought against someone who was not in control of prostitution but was nevertheless intimately involved in the exploitation of the woman—or, indeed, man—concerned and was living off the earnings. That was the reason for the Government's reliance on section 33 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 on managing or keeping a brothel, the penalty for which will be raised to a much more serious level.

I am certainly not going to stand in the way of what the Government are trying to do here. It goes some way towards meeting the concerns of the police, but it is worth noting that the Government have not gone as far as the police clearly would have wished. It will hereafter be impossible to prosecute somebody who may be living off the earnings of a prostitute—possibly, or even probably, someone well known to the police for using those earnings to engage in other criminal activities and who will now be beyond the reach of the law. I assume—this is the point on which I seek reassurance—that the Government have carefully considered that matter and are satisfied that they are willing to tolerate such a situation.

4.30 pm

Rather than repealing section 30 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, in view of what the police have said, the alternative approach would be to try to reform or to change it so as to enable it still to catch an adult knowingly living off the proceeds of prostitution but not, as the Minister desires, a child or other dependant. I do not agree with the Minister that there was no halfway house for Parliament if we wanted to respond to police concern. I should be grateful to hear whether he is satisfied—above all, whether the police have said they are satisfied—with what the Government propose. The Government's alternative is to rethink the repeal of section 30, considering whether some new offence could be brought in that would hit those who knowingly live off the earnings of a prostitute, an activity that the vast majority of people in this country consider improper.

Mrs. Brooke

I shall discuss amendment No. 186 and leave the others tabled by the Liberal Democrats to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley). We tabled that amendment after much thought. In particular, we paid attention to the debate in Committee, and I shall quote what the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said, with which I totally agree: We have consistently rejected the idea of a statutory reflection period for victims, partly because that would be inflexible and not necessarily based on the details of the case, which can vary."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 18 September 2003; c. 283.] It is difficult to disagree with that, which is why the amendment carefully refers to "opportunity" and "up to 6 months".

As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said in Committee, it is crucial not to confuse the separate issues of trafficking and illegal immigration. It would be harsh if a set of people who are already badly treated were to have that treatment compounded by not being treated with enough sympathy. There is a great deal of evidence that a period for reflection of up to six months would encourage more witnesses to give evidence against exploiters. They are the people we want to punish—not the victims, but those who run the dreadful trade in exploitation of women.

I have some difficulty with the fact that the Government will not give a little more on that point, although I am pleased by some of what has been said and by the pilot project. Even so, it is only a pilot, and a lot more is needed. Many organisations will be disappointed by the Government's response today. For example, the international order of Soroptimists has placed a call for a period of reflection of up to six months at the top of the agenda for its conference in Ireland later this year. It is a major issue, and a lot of people feel some empathy on it. I call on the Government to share in that feeling: at the end of the day, we want to give something back to those women who have suffered so greatly by giving some assurance that if they want a period of reflection in safe accommodation, this country—a relatively affluent one—can provide it. After all, it is people in this country who provide the demand for the services of the women who have been so harshly traded. In spite of what the Minister has said, I hope that he will consider further the principles behind the amendment.

Mr. Dawson

I am responsible for nine amendments in the group and I am grateful for the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. I speak to them in the knowledge that this is a fine Bill that contains excellent principles. It is momentous and will last for many years. I suspect that the House will not revisit the matter for a considerable period, so it is doubly—indeed, trebly—vital that we get the Bill absolutely right, and take every opportunity to ensure that it works well.

My right hon. and hon. Friends are to be congratulated on their work on clause 48, which will introduce, for the first time, swingeing penalties against people who abuse children through prostitution. I commend the provisions concerning those who pay for the sexual services of a child. In particular, I commend the Bill's definition of a child: the United Nations definition of someone under the age of 18, which is set out in the Children Act 1989. That is preferable to the confusing definitions used in various elements of criminal and youth justice legislation.

The Government have provided a strong statement that paying for the sexual services of a child is child abuse, and severe penalties are laid down for adults who indulge themselves in that disgraceful practice. For crimes involving children aged under 13, there is the possibility of a sentence of life imprisonment, and people abusing children under 16 may end up with a sentence of 14 years. Someone who abuses children aged 16 and 17 may end up with a sentence of up to seven years. Those are severe punishments.

The distinction, which the Government have already explained and which was, I think, supported by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who is no longer in his place, was based on the age of consent. I cannot see the sense or purpose of that distinction. As a wholehearted supporter of an equalised age of consent at 16, I cannot see its application in the case of some of the most vulnerable children—those who are abused through prostitution. I do not believe for an instant that a child who gets involved in that dreadful world, who is abused in such foul ways, has given any form of consent whatever to that involvement.

The reality of prostitution for children aged over 16 is probably that the abuse started much earlier. They probably became involved in prostitution before the age of 16, and are involved because they are being abused, controlled, manipulated and deceived. They are being forced into a life that can only be to their grotesque and gross detriment. The House is right to recognise that children need to be protected from people who would exploit them by paying for sexual services, but I do not understand why we need to make a distinction between children under 16 and children over 16.

I do not for a minute suggest that there should be a blanket response to people who are convicted of those awful offences or that everyone who abuses a child over the age of 16 should immediately get a 14-year sentence, but I firmly believe that, if we do not amend the Bill now, there will be occasions on which judges want to impose sentences that go beyond seven years on people who have abused children aged 16 or 17 to reflect the seriousness of the crime. I do not understand why we are not prepared to make that decision today.

The other amendments that I have tabled follow from my comments on clause 48 because I also seek to amend the clauses on foreign travel orders and the notifications required of sex offenders before they travel abroad. If we define children as people under the age of 18 in this country, we should extend that definition to children living across the world. If we want to protect children up to the age of 18 from sexual abuse and exploitation through prostitution in this country, we should extend that protection to children under the age of 18 in countries abroad. We should protect children who, in many cases, are made even more vulnerable to exploitation by sex tourists—paedophiles—from this country because of poverty, dislocation and the dreadful circumstances of many developing countries.

Again, I do not understand why we cannot extend foreign travel orders—bans on people traveling abroad—to people in this country who have been convicted of sexual offences against children over the age of 16. Extremely young children are employed in the sex industry abroad and their life is one of abuse and gross exploitation, so I do not understand why we should not try to do everything that we can to ensure that those children are properly protected up to the age of 18.

With regard to amendment No. 141, which relates to clause 86, we had a substantial discussion of such issues in Committee. Again, the Government are to be commended for reducing from eight days to three days the period for which convicted sex offenders can travel abroad without notifying the police. As has been made plain not just throughout our debates in Committee, but from our contacts with police officers during discussions on the Bill, we are dealing with devious but often highly intelligent and manipulative people who will work extremely hard to get round any legislation designed to prevent their wicked activities and appalling behaviour.

4.45 pm

It makes no sense whatever to me to say that convicted sex offenders can leave this country for up to three days without notifying the police of where they are going. We all know how far people can travel in three days. Last week, there was an item on the BBC website about the prevalence of child prostitution on the German-Czech border. It reported that tens of thousands of Germans cross the border to abuse children and that children as young as eight have been seen negotiating about sex practices and prices. According to one commentator, the Czech Republic is becoming a discount market for sex with children. The author of a report, commissioned by UNICEF, I think, said that bus stops, petrol stations and rest areas near the German-Czech border have been converted into bazaars in which child prostitutes are bought and sold.

The legislation does not just have a loophole—if it allows people who are convicted of sexual offences against children to travel abroad for up to three days without having to report to police, it is a gaping hole. Such people could make many journeys to the German-Czech border within three days. They could have an entire weekend of paedophilia and sex tourism in that time. They could travel there on a budget airline to abuse children for three days. The loophole should be closed.

This is a fine Bill, and we have a good opportunity this afternoon to improve it. I for one think that we should discount the age of consent when we talk about the appalling abuse of children through prostitution. I could not care less about the burden on convicted sex offenders of having to tell the police if they are going to leave this country. We should take this opportunity to strengthen what is a good Bill, and make it an excellent Bill for the protection of children.

Sandra Gidley

I will break my comments into two sections. First, I give a cautious welcome to new clause 2. I raised concerns in Committee, which, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) rightly realised, were a result of a Metropolitan police briefing. The point of that was that the police have no difficulty whatever prosecuting the small criminals, but have difficulty prosecuting those in big business who effectively manage to erect a human firewall between themselves and the hard end—for want of a betterphrase—of the organisation.

At that time, the Government rejected my amendment—which, I admit, was probably not approached in the right way—but made no real comment on the concerns that I raised. In a letter that the Minister wrote to us to explain the changes—he has just alluded to the same point—he said that the new clause was intended to try to address the concerns of the police. I struggle to understand, however, why simply using the penalty for keeping or managing a brothel will cope effectively with the key problem, which is not necessarily the management of the brothel but the barriers that can be put in the way of detection. Simply increasing the penalties may make it more likely that the police put some effort into the work, but the basic problem remains the same. I seek assurances from the Minister that the provision will be monitored to see whether it is effective. If, as he says, the laws on prostitution are to be examined and perhaps renewed, this would be a useful issue on which to start.

The second part of my comments relates to trafficking. I endorse the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), and Liberal Democrats have supported the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who has just spoken with his customary zeal on the subject. No one can doubt his commitment to vulnerable young people.

I share some of the hon. Gentleman's concerns. The notification period has been reduced from eight days to three, and that is a welcome move in the right direction. However, I questioned the Home Secretary when he made a statement on the subject, and the Minister might be interested in the Home Secretary's reply. He said that he wondered whether such offenders should be allowed out of the country at all, but we will have to look at that.—[Official Report, 19 November 2002; Vol. 394, c. 515.] The Home Secretary is not here to speak for himself, but his remarks are on the record. We are getting a little hung up about the practicalities of what is easily doable with regard to monitoring, but not thinking of the human effects of what we are allowing, which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre powerfully described.

I am afraid that I am not much of a liberal on this issue. I firmly believe that someone who abuses children forfeits all rights to the freedom that might enable him to abuse children in the future. That involves the imposition of a simple child protection order and, throughout the Bill, there has been great consensus among all parties on trying to increase protection.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

Does the hon. Lady agree that part of the process of notification and understanding sex offenders' actions involves questioning what they are doing if they travel to certain destinations or often go abroad? That might lead to an investigation that might bring to light concerns that might not otherwise be recognised.

Sandra Gidley

The hon. Lady has a point, but my fear is that such investigations might mean that we have in effect allowed abuse to take place. The fact that someone travels often to the Czech border or to one of the Asian countries may well sound alarm bells. However, a successful prosecution can follow an investigation only if that person has been allowed to offend again. That is why I have a difficulty with the new clause.

Three days would still allow quite a long time, and I understand that Interpol says that it can operate in two days. That would be a step in the right direction and I would welcome the Minister's comments on why 48 hours was not chosen. We live in an age of computers and technology and we are able to alert other police authorities as to what is going on. However, the policing infrastructure in some of the countries where abuse takes place is either corrupt or does not have the resources to deal with the problem. Such offenders are very cunning and know which countries to target so that they have the greatest chance of success.

Some time ago, I visited Cambodia where the age of consent presents a real problem. The Cambodian Government have raised the age of consent to 18, but 17 and 18-year-olds in that country look very young and might appeal to the sort of person who has a particular liking for sex with young children. However, the way in which we deal with that problem at the moment seems to be under a lesser offence because the age of the consent in this country is 16. I want reassurances that if people tried to visit regularly a country in which the age of consent was 18 to exploit the aspects of its society that I described, the problem could be dealt with.

Paul Goggins

I shall keep my remarks fairly brief because I outlined my views extensively earlier in the debate. I tell the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that although the police did not support the repeal of the offence of living off immoral earnings, we drafted the new clause to increase the penalty for keeping a brothel at their urgings. The Bill is an attempt to modernise the system and deal with modern circumstances and we want to avoid innocent parties being caught up by it. We need to achieve the right balance between addressing on- street pimping and capturing the more distant and vaguer figures—the Mr. Bigs, if you like—who often make a lot of money from their activities. I tell the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) that the police are confident that the Bill will enable them to track such people down and ensure that they are penalised, and I agree that the distant and shady characters are often those whom we really need to prosecute. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman. His views and those of other hon. Members will be the sort of views that will be reflected on during the review of prostitution that I mentioned earlier.

Mr. Bryant

There is no definition of what constitutes a brothel in law, so we rely on judgments for definitions. In the case of Gorman v. Standen in 1964, Lord Parker said that a brothel was a house resorted to or used by more than one woman for the purposes of fornication". Surely the question of whether one or several women are involved must form part of the debate that we will have during the review.

Paul Goggins

My hon. Friend points us in the direction of the debate that will no doubt ensue. I do not think that defining a brothel is among the many things that I must do this evening, so I shall pass on that, if he will forgive me.

As I tried to say earlier, I entirely understand the motivation of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) in tabling amendment No. 186. I share her motivation and I was not trying to be negative about it in any of my remarks. I simply put the argument that given that we are trying appropriately to support the victims of trafficking as I outlined, it is not necessary to introduce time constraints. What matters is for individual decisions to suit a person's specific circumstances. We must evaluate the pilot to assess its success and decide how the work can be extended further. I underline the fact that helping and supporting the victims of trafficking is a high priority for the Government and I am sure that we share that commitment with the hon. Lady.

I am sure that the whole House, as it often does, will join me in paying tribute to the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) champions the rights and needs of children. However, we must have a degree of proportionality when considering his amendments, the offences that we are discussing and sentencing and foreign travel orders, so I urge him to reflect further. I am sorry that I have not been successful at persuading him of the need for a sense of balance. He acknowledges that the change from eight days to three days is sensible and positive. The time period of three days is balanced and although it will not be burdensome for either the police or individuals, it will give us the tighter protection that we clearly need. If there is evidence that children might be the potential subjects of attack from specific paedophiles or sex offenders, a foreign travel order is available to prevent such people from travelling abroad, so we have a further measure to prevent them from going abroad if there is evidence that they could pose a real threat.

My hon. Friend raised the interesting idea of to what extent anyone—16, 17 or, indeed, older—consents to sexual activity that is part of prostitution. Again, that will be considered in the review as part of the extent to which people have been subject to abuse, caught up in drugs or manipulated by others. It is questionable to what extent anyone freely consents to sexual activity within that wider context. There is a debate to be had on that, but it is probably for another day.

5 pm

The hon. Member for Romsey quoted my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his usual robust form. When he makes such remarks, he speaks from the heart and guts, as we all do on such offences. We would probably all be harsher than the measures set out in the Bill, but it is our duty in Committee and on the Floor of the House to react not just with our heart and guts but with our heads, to create a sensible framework of law that will provide protection while being enforceable and workable. I urge hon. Members to support the Government amendments and not to press other amendments to a vote.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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