HL Deb 07 June 1951 vol 171 cc1198-206

6.11 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill for which I am asking a Second Reading from your Lordships this afternoon is designed to remove some small but unsightly blemishes from our criminal law. I hope that I shall be able to explain the Bill's provisions fairly shortly. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which this Bill will amend, contains a number of provisions which are designed to prevent, so far as it is possible to do so by legislative means, the procuring of women for sexual purposes; but it contains a number of exceptions by means of which prostitutes or women of known immoral character are excepted from its protective provisions. The object of the Bill which is before your Lordships is to remove these reservations.

For example, Section 2 (1) of the 1885 Act, which deals with young women and girls under twenty-one years of age, and is designed to protect them against procuration, makes it a criminal offence to procure such women for purposes of sexual intercourse with third parties, but this protection is expressly withdrawn from prostitutes or women of known immoral character. Again, Section 2 (4) makes it an offence to induce a woman to leave her usual place of abode to frequent or live in a brothel; but again there is the exception of a woman who is already living in a brothel. In other words, protection is withdrawn from prostitutes and women of known immoral character. This applies whatever age the woman may be. Finally, in Section 3 (2) protection is given to women, whether or not they are of full age, against procuration by means of false pretences or false representations. But here again, as in the earlier subsections, there is the exception of prostitutes or women of known immoral character. As I have said, the object of this Bill is simply to remove these reservations and to place prostitutes or women of known immoral character in respect of this protection by the law on exactly the same footing as their more virtuous sisters. It does so by excising from the subsections in question what one might call the peccant words—the words "not being a common prostitute or a woman of known immoral character" in two of them and the words "such place not being a brothel" in the other subsection.

It would be tempting to speculate how these exceptions ever got into the Act of 1885. The debates which took place, both in your Lordships' House and in another place, throw no light upon the matter. It may be that it was only an attempt to disarm a possible opposition; or it may be that at that time there was a feeling in the community that a prostitute was a woman of such low character that she hardly deserved to be treated as a human being at all, or, at any rate, did not deserve to have the sort of protection to which other women were entitled. Whether that be so or not, I am sure that we shall all agree now, without in any way condoning an occupation which was aptly described in the United Nations Convention a year or two ago as being "incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person," that the time has long passed when a woman who is following this wretched occupation should have the protection of the ordinary law withdrawn from her.

Moreover, quite apart from the justice of the matter, there are practical reasons of considerable cogency why this reform should be enacted. There is an obvious possibility of reformation in the case of some of these women, particularly of the younger women. Obviously, that possibility is considerably weakened by the existence of these exceptions in the law, because it means that when efforts are being made to withdraw a young woman, who perhaps has just started on a life of this kind, from a career of vice, there is this legal obstacle in the way. Even in the case of a hardened prostitute, surely she is entitled to some consideration in respect of the possibility of her being induced to go to another country where she may become an inmate of some horrible foreign brothel in which conditions of life are quite unspeakable and from which it is often impossible for a woman who has once become an inmate ever to get away. The existence of these blots on our criminal law is a real hindrance to our playing our full part in international action against the white slave trade. For example, we were unable to ratify the 1933 International Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Women, and these exceptions in the 1885 Act have long been a source of shame and frustration to those who have represented this country at international conferences on matters of this kind. This country has been a pioneer in trying to establish conventions for the purpose of preventing this sort of disgusting and disgraceful traffic, and it has always been a weak place in our armoury that these exceptions still remain on the Statute Book.

This Bill is entirely a non-Party measure and I hope it will be supported by your Lordships, on whatever side of the House you may sit. Nevertheless, on these Benches it is a source of gratification that this measure, which I hope will remove these blemishes upon our criminal law, has been introduced and pushed up to the present stage by a member of our Party, the honourable member for Blackburn, East. If I may say so, it seems to me that this is an instance of the great value of having women members in Parliament, because these blemishes have remained on our criminal law for many years, and over all that time no effort has been made to excise them. It has fallen to a woman Member to take the initiative in this matter—and if I may say so, in parenthesis, I would express the hope that it will not be long before your Lordships' House also has the advantage of women taking their place in our deliberations. I do not think it is necessary for me to add anything further in advocacy of this measure, for its very clauses speak for themselves. I beg to move.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Charley.)

6.21 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to say in a few words that I support the Motion for the Second Reading of this Bill, and I, too, hope that this House will shortly, by general consent, see that it is passed into law. The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885, is seldom the subject of Parliamentary discussion or public debate, but the problem with which it deals is one upon which every good citizen must from time to time reflect when considering the society of which he forms a part. I can well understand that it is necessary to examine the present provisions of the Act with caution before altering them, though I have no more knowledge than the noble Lord who has just spoken as to why these exceptions were inserted. It ought to be clearly understood, of course, that the offence of procuration, as it is called—the effort made by a man or woman (a pimp, really, or a pander) to secure a woman or a girl for the purposes of sexual intercourse— means the securing of that woman for sexual intercourse with a third person, a client.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, that it may be that sensitive public opinion has gone through some change since the Act of 1885 was passed. But to judge whether this Amendment should or should not be made, it is just as well to take in imagination the kind of case which may arise. Our law has laid down quite clearly that women and girls should be protected from the coldblooded endeavours of such people as those with whom this law deals to provide the women to gratify the sexual appetites of their clients. But it is still the case that, if a procurer of a girl for another man is prosecuted, and if it is proved that he has procured her, or attempted to procure her, he is guilty of no offence if the woman is a prostitute or if she is a person of known immoral character. That remains true, even though, instead of being a woman of age, she is a mere girl. Once a mere girl is found to be of immoral character, no offence is committed now under our criminal law, whatever be the circumstances in which she is procured for another man's pleasure by these most disreputable tradesmen.

There are in this connection two features of the law which it is just as well to bear in mind. One is that the offence of procuration is not committed if the woman or the girl is all the time perfectly willing to do what is wanted, because then, quite correctly, it is said that the person charged has not procured. The sentence from the textbook which lawyers use for this purpose says: There must be some real procurement, and this may be negatived by evidence which shows that the girl was not really procured because she needed no procuring at all and acted of her own free will. That is quite right. But just consider what is the situation in the case of a girl who may be quite young, of whom it may be said that she is of known immoral character, but who is trying to return to a better mode of life, or whom people are trying to influence to save her from herself. It may be that she is in the situation in which she is not too willing. Yet, as the law stands at present, if she is a girl of known immoral character the procurer who persuades her cannot be convicted. It seems to me that a law so framed proceeds almost on the assumption that these unfortunate sisters of ours are beyond all hope of reform.

The second consideration I would mention is this. The framing of the criminal law is a practical matter, and whatever be our natural sympathies and strong feelings, it is most necessary that it should be framed in a way which will really do justice; and in this class of case one can easily see that it has to be so framed as not to encourage blackmail. That is a most necessary and proper provision to bear in mind. But there is a provision in the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885, which will remain an essential part of the law when this little measure is passed and which is designed to secure that. It is the provision that no one can ever be convicted under this legislation on the evidence of one witness, but that there must always be confirmation. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to read the words of the section: Provided that no person shall be convicted of an offence under this section upon the evidence of one witness only, unless such witness be corroborated in some material particular by evidence implicating the accused. I do not claim to have any special knowledge of the administration of the criminal law. I have never, I am glad to say, had to deal with a case of this kind; but I feel sure that the care which is exercised in our courts before an accusation is regarded as proved—the experience of judges and magistrates, which stands us all in such good stead, and that fundamental rule of British justice, that nobody is to be regarded as guilty until the case has been properly proved against him— together with the provision which I have just read from the section, supply an adequate protection against the risk of blackmail.

In those circumstances, I hope that we shall agree with another place in carrying this Bill into law. By common consent, the operation of the procurer, the pimp and the pander of either sex is the most contemptible of trades, and I am glad that it should have fallen to a woman Member of another place to have introduced this piece of amending legislation. I feel confident that your Lordships' House will be glad to assist in passing it into law.

6.33 p.m.


My Lords, like the noble Viscount who has just spoken, I have had the privilege in bygone days of holding the office of Home Secretary and, therefore, have had to familiarise myself with this department of the law. I rise to express in a few words my agreement with what has been said as to the desirability of this amending Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, who introduced it, and the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, have stated the case so fully and completely that it is unnecessary for me to add to what they have said. Certainly I do not dissent from any of their observations, and I need do no more than commend this Bill for the approval of your Lordships' House.

6.34 p.m.


My Lords, only a few words are required from me, first of all to explain the Government's view about the range of the Bill—and that I shall do very shortly—and then to give the mind of the Government upon three points made by the sponsors of the Bill with which the Government are in agreement. The scope of this Bill is limited. It seeks simply to extend to common prostitutes and women of known immoral character the protection which Sections 2 and 3 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885, give to other women against procuration in general while they are under twenty-one, and against procuration by false pretence at any age. The Act as it exists protects all other women in this way, and the Bill before your Lordships' House makes no difference in the position of other women. The Bill also seeks to extend to women whose place of abode is a brothel the protection which the law now confines to women who do not live in a brothel. Women whose place of abode is not a brothel are already protected, and the Bill makes no change in their position.

The sponsors of the Bill claim that it will produce the following good results: first, that it will help to prevent the unfortunate young woman, newly embarked upon a life of prostitution, from being irredeemably drawn into it by procurers; secondly, that it will remove a discrepancy between the expression of the policy of the United Kingdom on this subject in the United Nations, as compared with its expression on the Statute Book. Moreover, it is contended that it is wrong in principle to withhold the protection of the law from any citizen because of his or her moral character, and the amendments introduced by the Bill remove this disability. On the first point, the Government have no evidence that prostitutes have been victimised by procurers from lack of this protection, but if there is no practical need for the amendments of the law proposed, the Government none the less see no objection to these Amendments being made.

On the second point, the amendments which the Bill introduces into the law on this subject will, as its sponsors claim, bring our law into closer conformity with the views which we have expressed at the United Nations. But I should add that they will not necessarily enable us to ratify any conventions on this kind of subject which we have hitherto felt unable to ratify. On the third point, the Government welcome the opportunity which the Bill provides of removing a disability from unfortunate women while extending the sanctions of the law against the procurer who makes a profit out of their misfortune. With those few words, I beg, on behalf of the Government, to give their support to the Second Reading of this Bill.

6.39 p.m.


My Lords, I should like briefly to express my thanks to noble Lords who have taken part in this discussion, and particularly to the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, for his powerful advocacy of this measure. I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, and the Government, for their welcome to this Bill. I hope that now we shall be able to remove this blotch from our criminal law.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.