HL Deb 04 June 1980 vol 409 cc1501-32

7.12 p.m.


My Lords, it is about three and a half years since we last debated the proposal which is embodied in the Bill now before your Lordships' House, a proposal which I was prompted to reintroduce when I read the reports of the speech of the Home Secretary of 21st March, when he said that measures had to be taken as a matter of urgency to prevent the prison population from growing any further than it already has. He remarked in that speech that five years ago his predecessor, Mr. Roy Jenkins, had said that a prison population of 42,000 would be intolerable, and yet it had already reached a figure of 44,800. He went on: We shall need, and in this the courts have their part to play, to see that prisons are not allowed to remain cluttered up with trivial and inadequate offenders who are no real threat, to anyone, except possibly themselves, but whose presence helps to create the extremely acute pressures which afflict our prisons today and all who work in them ". I could not agree more with the remarks of the Home Secretary.

However, I think that if Parliament enacts laws which provide that terms of imprisonment can be imposed for any particular offence, we are obliged to set aside resources adequate to accommodate the resulting prison population. If, on the other hand, Parliament would like the courts to impose lesser sentences for a particular offence, or none at all, it is up to us to say so clearly.

Therefore, this Bill would have the effect of abolishing imprisonment for soliciting and would thus relieve the women's prisons of some 300 women a year who are either sent there directly on conviction of an offence under Section 1 of the Street Offences Act, or are sent there in default of payment of a fine for the same offence.

According to the figures for 1978 published in the Criminal Statistics for England and Wales, 245 women were sent to prison directly on conviction of the offence, and the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, was good enough to give me figures in answer to a Question the other day showing that an additional 90 women were taken to prison during that year in default of a payment of a fine for the same offence. According to another Answer given to me by the noble Lord on 16th May, there were 411 women in Holloway prison on 31st March this year, occupying accommodation intended for 245 persons; and in Risley the position was, he said, even worse: 175 women in accommodation that was mant for 85.

I shall not pretend that the passage of this Bill would eliminate this horrific degree of overcrowding, which is far worse than the average for the men's prisons. But I suggest that it would make a contribution towards alleviating the pressure. On other occasions no doubt there will be plenty of suggestions of further categories of women who ought not to be in prison. If one talks to anyone in the women's prison service, one will find that they have no difficulty in producing many suggestions as to how the women who are now accommodated in those prisons could be better dealt with elsewhere. However, I think that this is one component—by no means negligible—of the overall solution.

What does Section 1 of the Street Offences do? It makes it an offence for a common prostitute to loiter or solicit in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution. For the purposes of this section, a common prostitute is a woman who has been cautioned twice before by a police officer when seen loitering or soliciting, or who has a previous conviction under the section. This provision was considered by the Working Party on Vagrancy and Street Offences which was appointed by the then Home Secretary, Mr. Reginald Maudling, as long ago as 1971. In 1974 the working party issued a working paper, and in 1976 they finally made a report, saying that: the most effective way to maintain the status quo on the streets (if that is what is wanted) is to retain the present Section 1 offence and the cautioning system". The purpose of the Wolfenden Committee's recommendations, which have been embodied in the Street Offences Act, was not, of course, to eliminate prostitution, which, as everybody recognised, would have been impossible, but to deal with the nuisance that was caused prior to that Act by large numbers of prostitutes persistently and tenaciously soliciting, particularly in certain areas of London where they annoyed the local residents and made it difficult for any woman to walk through those areas without being importuned.

Some people are afraid that without the sanction of imprisonment, the prostitutes would emerge from the brothels and bedsits where they have been lurking for the last 20 years to become again a plague on respectable citizens and tourists. Here I think that we are in the region of pure opinion, as no one can be absolutely certain what would happen. What can be said without fear of contradiction is that some prostitutes continue to solicit on the streets and are not deterred by the penalties, including the threat of imprisonment; while others, who turned to a variety of different methods of attracting clients, would be unlikely to go back to the relatively uncomfortable and inefficient business of street walking. What they have done is to arrange their affairs so that the clients come to them through massage parlours, saunas, escort agencies, postcards in the windows of newsagents and private parties, such as the one held recently by the unfortunate Mrs. Payne. It is worth noting that the ladies who offered their services at her establishment ran no risk of prosecution, and by all accounts they seem to have been able to rely on a higher class of customer than would be expected from casual encounters on the street.

One major social change in the last 20 years, which I think is frequently overlooked in these discussions, is the dramatic increase in offences of violence. The prostitute who relies on picking up men off the streets is, of course, taking a very considerable risk. That must be at least as great a disincentive to soliciting as a method of attracting clients as a threat of a prison sentence. My own conclusion would be that decriminalisation might have a small effect on the prevalence of soliciting, but that any nuisance caused thereby would be vastly outweighed by the beneficial effects of keeping some 300 to 400 women a year out of prison. It is worth pointing out, too, that there are on the statute book other methods of dealing with soliciting of an aggressive or violent nature. Section 64 of the Metropolitan Police Act 1839 has been mentioned to me; I do not know whether this is used any longer, but it allows any constable belonging to the Metropolitan Police … to take into custody, without a warrant, all loose, idle and disorderly persons whom he shall find disturbing the public peace, or whom he shall have good cause to suspect of having committed or being about to commit any felony, misdemeanour or breach of the peace, and all persons whom he shall find between sunset and the hour of eight in the morning lying or loitering in any highway, yard or other place and not giving a satisfactory account of themselves ". Then there is Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1936, which provides: Any person who in any public place uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned, shall be guilty of an offence ". The police in certain parts of the country are perfectly ready to use Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1936 on a fairly extensive scale. I think that if prostitutes were to commit acts of aggression against ordinary passers-by and citizens, there is a whole armoury of weapons on the statute book which the police could use to deal with them.

I asked the Minister recently whether the review of the Public Order Act now being undertaken would include consideration of the use of Section 5 to deal with both soliciting by women and importuning by men, and the noble Lord replied on 14th March that the law on sexual offences was entirely a matter for the Criminal Law Revision Committee. Perhaps he could say this evening whether that committee would be able to examine the possible use of Section 5 and what, if any, is the extent of liaison between the Criminal Law Revision Committee and the body which is now examining the Public Order Act.

A questionnaire which the Criminal Law Revision Committee issued last June did not refer to the matter, and in the 18 questions on various aspects of the law on prostitution which they put to the recipients of that questionnaire the only one to which they attached a comment suggesting the answer they appeared to want was the one about soliciting. They asked: Should the existing provisions about soliciting by prostitutes in streets and public places be retained? And they went on: It should be borne in mind that past experience has shown that men solicited by prostitutes are usually unwilling to give evidence and accordingly the Working Party on Vagrancy and Street Offences (Report, para. 87) and the Wolfenden Committee (Report, paras. 251–256) did not favour any form of provision requiring proof of annoyance ". It seemed to me that the committee had approached at any rate this part of its task with its mind partly made up. It would be helpful if the Minister, when he replies, could give some indication of when the Criminal Law Revision Committee is expected to report. I think the par for the course would be about two years; the questionnaire having gone out in June 1979, the replies would be received in June 1980, with publication towards the end of 1980, allowing adequate time for consultations on the report of the committee, it is unlikely that legislation would come before the House before the Session 1982–83. I suggest that some way has to be found to speed up this process if the criminal law is to be kept properly up to date, not only in this area but as a whole.

I turn to the negative side of the provisions which the Bill seeks to amend. The working party said in their report that the principal criticisms of Clause 1 were:

  1. "(a)that its use of the phrase ' common prostitute ' is at best derogatory and at worst prejudiced;
  2. (b) that it is differently drafted from comparable legislation controlling male importuners (and at present there is no offence of a man importuning a woman) and thereby discriminates against women; and
  3. (c) that without a requirement to prove annoyance or nuisance there is insufficient concern for the liberty of the individual".
To those should be added the statement of the Home Office Research Unit Bulletin on Women Offenders of July 1974, which said: It is quite widely acknowledged that prison is inappropriate to prostitutes. The women involved tend to regard it as a calculated risk of their profession. It can have slight rehabilitative value, even if it affords temporary respite from an exacting life". If prison, then, has no effect on the prostitutes themselves, their presence there may presumably influence the other women whom they meet. Dr. Megan Bull, the Governor of Holloway Prison, said in evidence before the Select Committee on Expenditure in another place that young girls may be recruited into the profession as a result of the contacts they make with prostitutes in prison.

There are two other points I wish to emphasise. First, sending a prostitute to prison makes it even more necessary for her to continue soliciting and to intensify her activities if she has no other means of attracting clients. She comes out of prison often heavily in debt and, incidentally, if prison sentences are to be retained at all, it seems to be generally agreed that much shorter sentences can be just as unpleasant subjectively, if that is the idea, as the longer ones which are normally imposed; a couple of weeks does the same as a three months' sentence, which appears to be standard for most magistrates' courts. She needs to go back on the streets immediately to make up for lost time and to stave off the most pressing of her creditors. I thought that was well exemplified by the evidence given by Susan to the Expenditure Sub-Committee when she said, and I quote from Paper HC 61, xiv: After I got out (three months imprisonment for soliciting and loitering) I was two months behind with my bills. I had £80 of debts to come out to. That was money owing on my furniture, TV, insurance and clubs (hire purchase) besides the £8 to £10 a week I give to my mum for my keep. In the end I had to solicit to get the money. I was doing it again within two weeks of coming home. After a while I got an assembly job but I only cleared £30 a week after stoppages. It just wasn't enough for my commitments so I went back on ' the game ' again ". This of course is not a problem peculiar to prostitutes, but I suggest it affects them disproportionately because they are less likely than most other women who go to prison to have the support of their families, and it is getting worse because women may be given one or more three-month suspended sentences and then, on the second or third occasion, they may come up against a tough bench who will put another three months on top of the previous one or two, so that the woman will spend six or nine months in prison at a stretch.

I spoke to a woman, Jean, this morning in Birmingham, who was sentenced on 2nd May 1979 to three months plus a three months' suspended sentence, so she did six months altogether in Risley Prison, Birmingham. She has two children aged seven and eight, but she was lucky enough that they were able to live with her sister while she was in prison, but of course many women are not fortunate enough to have relatives who will do that. She said to me that in the area of Birmingham where she operates the police know who to pick on and that very frequently they arrest women who are passing through a red light area and who they know, from their recognition of them, have previously been prostitutes, and so they may get three or six months for doing nothing whatever.

The second point I wish to make before concluding is that several of the witnesses who appeared before the Select Committee mentioned the fact that prostitutes tend to have dependent children, so that imprisonment frequently means the children having to be received into care. That, of course, is an extra punishment not only for the prostitute but for the innocent child as well, and the long-term psychological damage it does to the child may be quite severe, apart from the cost to the taxpayer.

Apparently—and I should like the views of the noble Lord on this—no records are kept of the number of children received into care as a result of their mothers receiving custodial sentences, nor has any research been done on the effects of prison life on pre-school children who spend time in mother-and-baby units. I wonder whether the Home Office might not start to keep statistics on children received into care from now onwards. Perhaps the noble Lord will consider that point. I also wonder whether he can tell the House what has been the result of the Home Office consideration of the usefulness of commissioning research into the effects of pre-school children being taken into prison with their mothers, which was mentioned in the former Home Secretary's Answer of 17th April 1978.


My Lords, what age group was the noble Lord thinking of?


My Lords, the Answer that was given by the former Home Secretary related to the pre-school children, but in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, I am informed that although in theory any child of pre-school age may be received into, for example, Holloway Prison with his mother, in practice the accommodation is very limited and the prison takes only children up to the age of three. Other provisions have to be made where a child is aged over three, and these are the occasions on which the child has to be received into care.


I thank the noble Lord.


My Lords, on this point I obtained some figures from an inner city probation department in Sheffield today. The department told me that in the 18-month period between January 1979 and May 1980 17 women were given sentences for soliciting by the magistrates' courts in Sheffield, and among those 17 women, six had either a child or groups of children who were received into care as a consequence of their mother's sentence. I do not know whether those figures are typical; perhaps the noble Lord can enlighten us on this. If that experience was paralleled throughout the country, then it would seem that we are taking a very large number of children into care purely as a result of the convictions for soliciting.

The other fact I was given—and it is very interesting—relating to the experience of the inner city probation office in Sheffield is that of 21 statutory clients referred to them by the court, no fewer than 17 were single parents and this tallies with the estimate that was given to me by PROS, the Programme for Reform of the Law on Soliciting, who said that in their judgment as many as 75 per cent. of prostitutes may be single parents.

The next question that I should like to ask the noble Lord about is that of community service orders as an alternative to prison. The board of visitors of Hollo-way Prison said in their evidence to the Select Committee that community service orders may not be appropriate for single parent families—and I have just mentioned the high proportion of single parents who are found among soliciting prostitutes—and they suggested that some form of service which single mothers could carry out in their own homes while looking after their children be devised. I wonder whether the noble Lord can tell us whether the Home Office has looked at that suggestion and, if so, with what result. To what extent are community service orders already being used by the courts for women convicted of soliciting?

I spoke today to another girl, Sandra, who is carrying out a community service order at the moment, and she said to me: As an alternative to prison it's better, but why should we go to court at all? I'm doing meals-on-wheels. It's very awkward because I've got a little boy aged seven and you have got to go when they say they want you. When I was in prison about five years ago he had to go into care. I was lucky—the lady he went to was very good". But if we must have a penalty at all, then clearly these community service orders are very much better than sending women to prison.

I mentioned earlier that many other categories of person other than prostitutes find themselves in prison because of the bankruptcy of ideas in our society about how to deal with the whole spectrum of what we would call deviant behaviour. But these categories tend to overlap. Evidence also given to the Select Committee showed that a quarter of the prostitutes imprisoned are alcoholics, a quarter are drug addicts, a quarter have attempted suicide at some time or another, a quarter have a variety of physical disorders, and one in six has a history of mental illness. The Police Federation describes them as inadequate by virtue of a variety of health, mental or other reasons … and are in need of medical help, which the prison sentences do not give". The behaviour of, tragically, large numbers of persons who are social casualties may be strange and frightening to the normal person, and even normal people may become a nuisance to others when, for instance, they swarm into a city for a football match, drive noisy motorcycles, or park in front of somebody else's house. But we do not imprison people for their behaviour when their actions in other respects are perfectly lawful.

Prostitution itself is not an offence, and while it is certainly not to be encouraged, neither is it right in my view for an act preparatory to prostitution to be treated with such great severity under the law. The offence of soliciting is itself unique in that the accused is treated as guilty before any decision has been reached by the court, by reason of the two cautions which are read out by a police officer, labelling the accused as a "common prostitute". The offence is also exceptional in requiring police evidence only, and not that of the person who in theory has been annoyed.

It is hard to believe that this provision was not the work of Victorian hypocrites, but that it was promoted and supported by many who are still here today. The remedy was indeed far worse than the disease, and now with the enlightened policy announced by the Home Secretary, there is reason to hope that the Government will be sympathetic to this Bill. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2".—(Lord Avebury.)

7.36 p.m.


My Lords, I hope to speak fairly briefly this evening. However, before doing so, perhaps I should say that I have not hitherto regarded it as proper to intervene in debates on penal policy in the last 15 months, given the fact that as chairman of the Parole Board I should have regarded that as inappropriate. However, I speak tonight for two reasons. The first is that I was involved in a debate in this House, with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, into the possibility of abolishing penalties of imprisonment for certain offences; that was when I was a Minister in the Home Office. The second reason is that in any event the cases of women sentenced to imprisonment for soliciting do not come before the Parole Board, nor indeed local review committees. The sentences are in fact too short to come before those bodies.

As the House will be aware, and as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has already reminded us, at the moment the entire prison system is suffering the most grievous overcrowding. The position in local prisons where people are serving shorter sentences of imprisonment is particularly serious, and this being so, it is appropriate for us to discuss any proposal which would lessen the pressures on the system.

A few weeks ago the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary announced his plans for dealing with this problem. I very much agreed with the approach which he indicated in that statement. He certainly pointed out—and I think it was right that he should do so—that there are no simple solutions to this problem. Sometimes it is argued that there is some magical way in which the pressures on the prison population can be relieved. I am bound to say that I do not believe that such options exist. But certainly we must look at any proposal which has the effect of reducing the numbers.

Some of the critics of the Home Secretary's statement have advanced proposals which I believe would paradoxically have the effect not of reducing the prison population, but arguably in some cases even increasing it, though of course that is not the intention of those who put forward these proposals. Having said that, there is one particular area in which Parliament itself has a responsibility; and it is a very important one indeed. That is when it considers, as it has to when considering proposals for legislative change, the scale of sentences; and, as a result of this Bill, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, we are given the opportunity to examine the penalties this evening.

I would say this at the outset. I have come to the conclusion—and tonight, of course, I speak entirely for myself—that in some respects the present law is unsatisfactory. First, I am impressed by the doubts which have been expressed by a wide variety of organisations about sentencing prostitutes to terms of imprisonment. The Home Office Working Party on Vagrancy, to which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has already referred, has reported that the Prison Service did not see itself as having any useful rehabilitative role in the case of prostitutes, and I think it is self-evident why that is so. And, as the very helpful document which has been provided by NACRO reminded us, this view has been more than confirmed by policy statements made by organisations ranging from the Prison Officers' Association to the prison and borstal governors' branch of the Society of Civil and Public Servants.

Secondly, I am struck, too, by the dismissive attitude of a great deal of informed public opinion about the whole concept of imprisoning these women. They just do not think it is necessary. More than that, many people are I believe increasingly uneasy about a law which can imprison women for the offence of soliciting but which leaves untouched the men who drive slowly through some of our streets trying to pick up these girls. I am well aware that the men who do this, either in cars or on foot, can in certain circumstances themselves be guilty of an offence, but that offence is exceptionally difficult to prove; and, in any event, I think the House must accept that chief officers of police have heavy demands on their resources, and there has to be some limit to the number of men they can make available for this purpose.

I recognise at once that there is a dilemma facing those who take the view which I am expressing this evening. Do we argue that the present law is so unsatisfactory that it should be scrapped altogether, or do we say that what concerns us primarily is the question of imprisonment? I concede at once that there is a need for a law which deals with the nuisance that can be caused by soliciting, by men or by women. I think we would be quite wrong to suggest that soliciting is not a matter which can create an exceptionally disagreeable situation for many of our fellow citizens. It is folly, I think, to pretend that there are not some areas of our great cities in which a man's wife, girlfriend or daughter cannot approach her own front door without being approached by men. Furthermore, I think that in a situation of that kind people are perfectly entitled to be quite indignant that that should be so, and, indeed, to demand some protection from the law.

NACRO have argued, in the evidence which they have put forward to the Criminal Law Revision Committee—and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, touched on this particular point a few moments ago—that one way of dealing with this problem is by simply relying on Section 5 of the Public Order Act. It is argued that this in itself would be an adequate answer to the problem. Under that section of the Public Order Act it is an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned. I suspect that if I were to ask the Parliamentary Under-Secretary what were his views on that, he would perfectly reasonably, if I may say so, say that this matter has been put to the Criminal Law Revision Committee and, that being so, we should wait to hear their views. That would be the answer which I would give if I were in his position, so I will not ask the question. But, having said that, I should like to echo the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury: When are we likely to get a report from the Criminal Law Revision Committee on this matter?

I now turn, if I may, to the question which is before us this evening; namely, whether the courts, having convicted a woman of the offence of soliciting, should any longer be empowered to sentence her to a period of imprisonment. I concede that if the offence remains—and it will clearly do so in any event until the Criminal Law Revision Committee reports; I think that is inescapable—some women who have merely been fined will in fact end up in prison anyway. We have all spent a great deal of time discussing whether there is an alternative to the imprisonment of people who do not pay fines, but it is an exceptionally difficult problem to find a satisfactory answer to this. Therefore, I would accept, on the basis of the argument which I am deploying this evening, that even if the offence itself was no longer imprisonable some people would still go to prison.

But, having said that, I very much hope that the noble Lord the Parliamentary Under-Secretary will be able to indicate that the Government are at least prepared to consider abolishing the right of courts to order a term of imprisonment. The overcrowding situation in women's prisons is certainly just as serious, if not in some respects more serious, than the situation in male establishments. Holloway is still only partially rebuilt, and it will be some years before it is wholly in operation. While I was a Minister I had the extremely painful duty of deciding that a new remand centre which was going to be opened at Cookham Wood in Kent, designed to take young men from the extremely overcrowded conditions in the local prison at Canterbury, would in fact have to become a women's prison. It had just been built, and the staff had pretty well been engaged. Then, at the last moment, we had to switch it round and make it a women's prison. In doing so, I incurred severe criticism from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester and Chatham, because he said—and I believe he was absolutely right in saying so—that what I was doing was preserving wholly unacceptable conditions at the local prison in Canterbury. Indeed I was, but, unfortunately, I had no choice because the pressure on the women's prisons was so serious that in fact we simply had to make more accommodation available.

It therefore seems to me in the situation I have described that it would be right to treat soliciting in exactly the same way as the Criminal Law Act 1977 dealt with the offence of being drunk and disorderly; namely, by preserving a substantial financial penalty but abolishing the right of the courts to order a term of imprisonment. I do not believe—I must say this in conclusion—that such a change in the law would in any way run counter to the views of many informed members of the public, and I think that it would make a useful contribution to lessening the very heavy burdens which, as I have indicated, are now facing our entire prison system.

7.48 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for proposing this small amendment to the Street Offences Act, and for his speech today, which was most informative. I was very interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, because I remember what he said in a previous debate when I spoke and he was in the ministerial position. But I am also rather astonished that he should, apparently, if I have not misunderstood him, think that overcrowding of prisons is one of the main reasons for not sending prostitutes to prison. They are not doing anything illegal; they are not criminals; and I should have thought that this was a very poor reason for suggesting why they should not go to prison. There are plenty of other reasons.

I am sorry that this debate has taken place rather late at night, and I hope that noble Lords not here will read in Hansard tomorrow what is said; because we had hoped, I think, to get the views of this House on what has happened since the passing of the Street Offences Act 1959, and I think it is extremely important. But, as I said in 1977, I still hold the view that consideration should be given to the total abolition of all laws concerning prostitution—and, I should like to add, especially the Street Offences Act 1959.

Since the date in 1977, I have consulted (as has the noble Lord) a number of organisations. I have given talks to interested societies, attended press organisations, met the press from the Continent and attended the weekend conference of the Cropwood Round Table in Cambridge in December of last year. I have received the report from NACRO, also that of the Women's National Commission and that of a number of solicitors and lawyers. Many people agree, it seems, that the 1959 Act is not compatible—and I do not think that this has been mentioned—with the Sex Discrimination Act. In fact, it is totally contrary to what that Act has laid down. The basic fact in dealing with prostitution is that it has always existed, continues to exist and will continue to exist in some form because there has always been and always will be a demand for the prostitutes' services. We all know that prostitutes go on the streets not for other prostitutes but for getting their clients, who are men. However many Acts of Parliament are passed, I suggest that this will continue.

May I suggest that prostitution has little to do with what is known as the permissive society. It seems logical that in a permissive society there should be less need for prostitution than there was, for example, in the Victorian era. But the Home Office working party in their Green Paper said: The way of life of the prostitute is so remarkable a rejection of the normal ways of society as to bear comparison with the drug addict ". That, to my mind, is one of the most unthinking and undesirable remarks in this Green Paper. It is a fascinating statement to be made (and put into a document) by people who are supposed to be responsible. Therefore, I have little faith in that working party.

The National Women's Commission considered a lot of these points and said in regard to imprisonment that it may have a certain deterrent value but that they do not see it as a particularly effective form of punishment. Although I do not agree with all the suggestions in their paper, I do agree with what they went on to say: The law should be changed to apply equally to men and women. In deciding whether to prosecute, allowance should be made for the fact that in some cases a prostitute's husband or cohabitee, who may be technically ' living on the earnings of prostitution ' is in fact playing a supportive and protective role in accordance with women's own wishes". This does not happen only in Britain but in several countries in Europe. As the noble Lord has said, the number of prostitutes sent to prison does not reveal a satisfactory state of affairs. In 1978, there were 308 prostitutes in prison and, in 1972, 265. Nothing has happened since the Street Offences Act was promulgated to keep women out of prison. The National Women's Commission went on to talk of other unpleasant things: the poncing by landlords for higher rents, hotel staff who have to be tipped or the prostitutes may be evicted.

At the time of the Wolfenden Report, on which the Street Offences Act was based, I understand that no women would give evidence. I am pleased to say that I was able to arrange in Central Hall, Westminster, to have a meeting at which over 200 women turned up. Also attending were members of voluntary organisations, probation officers and clergy. One of my difficulties was to see that the police did not arrest anybody they knew when they came out of the building. But they understood what was happening.

Also, I gave evidence to the Education, Arts and Home Office Sub-committee of the House of Commons Select Committee on Expenditure and I was allowed to take there a deputation of all types of prostitutes who were very eloquent in the views they gave. The noble Lord said that he had read some of this evidence. This is one of the best ways of getting to understand the problem. In order that women should not be sent to prison after being arrested for persistently accosting persons, it should be necessary that the person being accosted should either say that he or she was not worried or should go to the court to give evidence if the prostitute pleaded not guilty. I am sure that it is against British law that a person should go to court and have only, say, the police officer's word against hers. It is essential that evidence should be given.

I should like to do away with the phrase "common prostitute". No person should be so labelled for life. I think it is most unfair. Supposing that a woman, no longer a prostitute, commits a trivial offence and goes to court. The magistrate asks for her past record and is told, "She is a common prostitute". She may by then be happily married. Perhaps she had been apprehended for accosting only twice before being labelled a common prostitute. That should be abolished.

One of the difficulties at the present time is the number of foreigners in this country. I know, and others may know, that foreigners expect to obtain the services of prostitutes. I was told only this morning that the foreign guests of a certain hotel had asked for some women to be supplied to them. This is a great temptation for the people who are asked to provide women, and sometimes names are given by officials at the hotels concerned.

I should like to ask the noble Lord who is to wind up a specific question about the shortage of staff in Holloway. I was told only yesterday that women are often locked up from 2 p.m. until 8 p.m. Can the noble Lord say whether this is correct?

I should like to suggest that Section 54(1) of the Metropolitan Police Act 1939, under which annoyance has to be proved, is quite enough—and in those days the fine was £2. Things have changed. Surely that is enough. We do not need the Street Offences Act. I should like to see the Street Offences Act repealed and then, if necessary, to use the other Act. Other action can be dealt with by the Public Order Act 1936 or by the by-laws which most local authorities have.

May I conclude by reading what was said in 1957 by the organisation known at one time as the Josephine Butler Society: It is a matter for profound regret that the Wolfenden Committee has, in contrast to its work on the problem of homosexuality,"— and the Wolfenden Report started what are now called the "gay men"— placed so narrow an interpretation on its terms of reference in regard to prostitution. The great fundamental, that good law educates, and unjust law prostitutes the moral standards of society has been ignored. Equitable and just law is the first requirement for fostering a sense of equal responsibility in both men and women. Concentration upon the prostitute in the streets as a nuisance, rather than part of a complex moral and social problem, leads to complacent disregard of the moral effect upon the public mind of the legislation proposed ". My Lords, that still holds good.

7.59 p.m.


My Lords, when the 1959 Bill came in I was then, I think, the bê te noir of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, when we both sat in another place. Indeed, I had to take the Bill through its Committee stage at that time. That Bill was not introduced without an enormous wealth of evidence from all sources and authorities who had to deal with the great metropolitan cities; and some of the strongest representations were made by the then Tourist Board because of the enormous number of complaints they had from highly reputable visitors who found the manner of behaviour, the soliciting, the threatening and sometimes the sheer blackmail, was a real menace on our streets. I have a very open mind about whether gaol is of any value, so it is not on that point that I am mainly disagreeing with the noble Lord and my noble friend Lady Vickers.

I should like to say to my noble friend the Minister that, as I understand it, prostitutes are not lightly sent to prison unless there is a long record of persistent soliciting—and sometimes in rather unpalatable circumstances. Secondly, a very substantial number of young girls come to the great City and do not have financial means. They do not find themselves in Soho, but probably get a lift on a lorry and finish up in the East End, round about Stepney, in some of the clubs there. By the "network" they may find themselves in a situation where someone says: "I know where you can find somewhere for the night". They perhaps start off being given a job in one of the cafes.

During my investigations at the time I toured some of the cafes in Soho. Some months later I was to recognise in the police courts some of the girls whose debts had suddenly run up from their benefactors and they were told how they could make more money. They were thereupon set up in the West End.

I agree with what I know is the view of my noble friend Lady Vickers, that many of the prostitutes who (shall we say?) straightforwardly offer their services are prepared to accept: "No, thank you. Not interested ". But they are not all archangels, and a minority can be extremely vicious and use blackmail. It is here that I would quarrel with the noble Lord's amendment, and that is on the limitation of £50. That is peanuts to the highly paid professional in London—absolute peanuts. If she goes to prison she is losing a week, a fortnight, or possibly—in a severe case—a month.

If the noble Lord inquires of some of the hotels, he will find that one of the problems of their security officers is to see that some of these astute ladies do not bribe a casual member of the staff to let them into some wealthy visitor's room. When he finds a prostitute in his room he feels his reputation is at stake. She tells him quite bluntly that she will swear that she was invited there and he can pay up or otherwise. Anybody who believes that this type of situation does not happen is living in Cloud Cuckoo-land. While I would not go all out in maintaining that there should be a prison sentence, I think that there should be a latitude for the court to decide whether a higher amount should be imposed where there is evidence of someone trying to blackmail.


My Lords, I am puzzled by what the noble Baroness is saying. This can only be based on the belief that prostitution is an offence. The noble Baroness knows as well as I do that in this country prostitution is not an offence. Blackmail of course is. What we are discussing is not whether prostitution is an offence or whether some prostitutes make a great deal of money and may be very disreputable people. This is part of our background, and there is no offence of prostitution in this country. What we are discussing today—and I do not think the remarks of the noble Baroness are relevant to it—is whether soliciting by a prostitute in public is an offence.


My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord says. I hope he will forgive me if I feel that the background on which the present Bill was passed—then, many of the offences occurred in the streets, and the legislation was passed to stop the nuisance and soliciting in the street—has been transferred to what I would call public places; I refer to where somebody trespasses into somebody else's room in a hotel. That is the basis of my reservation.

There may be times when a £20 fine is enough, but I think that the £50 limitation and maximum is too small. I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister whether, when young girls are involved, it will still be possible, if they are under age, to take them into care, even if this amendment were passed? Girls—and we have had examples of girls aged 13, 14 and 15—who are under age should not be covered by this amendment. That is all I want to say, my Lords. I did not think I would be here in time to speak. I feel that we cannot treat too lightly something which can be a great embarrassment and quite a menace in our capital cities.

8.7 p.m.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the noble Baroness who has just spoken at least broke the chain of attitude as far as Lord Avebury's Bill is concerned, because there seemed to be almost complete agreement—certainly up to a certain point—about it. She asked the Minister how often people should be sent to prison for prostitution. My noble friend Lord Donaldson explained that prostitution is not an offence. I can tell the noble Baroness (and save the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, from doing so) that loitering and soliciting are the offences and there is a maximum penalty of £50 fine for the first offence, £200 for the second and £200 and/or three months' imprisonment for the third or a subsequent offence. It depends entirely upon the court. I am a justice of the peace. We have cases which come before us and, on the whole, we try to avoid sending women to prison. But the way is open for other courts to operate the law as it is.

The first time I spoke in this House in connection with this subject was in making the second speech I ever made in the House, in 1968 when the late Lord Chorley brought forward the Street Offences Bill. The purpose of that was to remove discrimination from the law on prostitution and soliciting and to redefine it to include loitering for immoral purposes. It is very interesting that at the time the late Lord Stonham, who was the Minister of State on the Government Benches, said, when I put very much the case that my noble friends have been putting tonight, that the Criminal Law Revision Committee was looking at it and would be reporting very shortly. I said (at column 1330 of Hansard for 8th February 1968): The question of referring the whole thing to the Criminal Law Revision Committee and waiting for their report seems to me to be wrong for two reasons. I mean no disrespect or disbelief of what my noble friend Lord Stonham has said, that they are ' very ' shortly going to examine this area, but that means rather longer for those of us who have been impatient for many years". My Lords, they still have not reported. I then went on to say: I still disagree with my noble friend, because I think the advice we should be giving is not technical advice "— from the Criminal Law Revision Committee— but advice on policy, advice on the relationship between men and women, equity of punishment, sex discrimination. This is not a job for the Criminal Law Revision Committee but a job for Parliament. That is my view about this. I still take the same view.

The problem with the original Bill—and we are now going back over 12 years—was that the law on loitering for immoral purposes was going to be a rather wide and a rather insubstantial thing to establish. Therefore, it rather fell down on that, together with the fact that there was then—I am not sure about this—a stronger degree of male chauvinism in your Lordships' House than there is now, and certainly there was a packing of the men together to support each other so that they did not come within the purview of any Act. Then, in the following year, in 1969, Lord Chorley brought forward another Street Offences Bill. In connexion with that, he said it was based on it being an offence for any person in a street or public place … persistently to accost any person or persons with a view to offering or obtaining sexual services for payment or reward ". That Bill got its Second Reading although the first Bill did not, but it was lost because of wrecking amendments. There the matter stood. There have been various attempts by noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who has brought forward this Bill tonight, to try to get the law altered.

I think the question of whether or not the fine is £50 is quite irrelevant. The noble Lord is trying to do what I think is absolutely right. He is putting down a marker and from then on, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said—I will not repeat it all—suggests dealing with this particular offence in the context of not sending women to prison. It is really what we are talking about and moving towards, I hope; in other words, that the offence itself should go as other speakers have said, and that it should be dealt with by the law as it stands on the basis of nuisance.

If two people want to get together through being solicited or accosted and it does not displease either of them, there is no nuisance created. They are both adults, and therefore the law has nothing to do with it. I think the trouble is that unfortunately there has always been an incestuous relationship between law and morality in this area. There has also been, and is still, a great deal of hypocrisy about this, and I should not be surprised if the all-party penal reform group which is to report fairly soon on a vast number of offences which they feel should not result in imprisonment does not follow the line which I am following tonight.

The only point at which I would part company with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is that he was asking how much was being done in the way of research and monitoring the effect on children when their mothers go to prison. I really do not think one needs to spend a great deal of money and research on that. We know it must have a very bad effect on the children when their mothers go to prison. I would much rather not send the mothers to prison and spend the money on the research on the children. If you do this by "nuisance", the Minister is probably going to say, first, that we should perhaps go back to the situation as it was before the 1969 Act. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, dealt with that, but I think the whole sexual climate has changed considerably in this country—that is a "guesstimate" just as much as any other, if the noble Lord does say that this is going to happen again. What we have to do is to behave in a civilised and humane way, do away with the offence and then see what happens.

The other point then probably arises: What then do you do if you have people who are found guilty of creating a nuisance—let us get away from the words "loitering" and "soliciting"—and then they do not pay their fines? I would say that one should work along the lines of proposals for other fines, for example, as regards the non-payment of maintenance and debt. If it is proved that there has been a deliberate or wilful refusal to pay, then in those cases one considers that as the offence in itself, for which the ultimate sanction would be prison.

I think the noble Lord, when replying is also going to refer to the fact that the Home Office working party finally came out in favour of leaving the law as it is at the moment. That is not surprising when one looks at the composition of that working party; seven Home Office officials; four senior police officers, one DHSS official and one official from the DPP. None of the voluntary organisation dealing with prostitution was represented on the working party—or, for that matter, vagrants—so I would not put my faith in that particular report.


My Lords, if I may intervene, the noble Baroness might also have reminded the House that out of all those people she has mentioned on that committee there was only one woman.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the noble Lord has made the point for me. It is a fair point, but I do not like the idea of the "statutory woman". Let me say there were not even two women on the committee. There is also the point that if you set up a committee like that you probably ought to have somebody who is in the trade on it, and thus have a prostitute on that committee. Be that as it may, I would support my noble friend Lord Harris in that something really needs to be done in the interim, not only on the basis of keeping more people out of prison—which is absolutely essential, as I think we would all agree; at least I hope we would—but in order to deal in an interim manner with this proposition. However, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, knows very well there is not very much chance of this Bill emerging as an Act of Parliament as it stands. I should have thought that very strong guidance could have been given to magistrates and courts along the lines that imprisonments should not be one of the penalties used in cases like this until the law is changed, unless there are very special circumstances. In other words, the emphasis should be so strongly against imprisonment that it really becomes almost disused.

Finally, I would say that it is perfectly true, as the noble Baroness said, that prostitution will go on as long as there is a demand. If there is a demand there will be a supply to meet it. I was at one time a prison visitor at Holloway Prison and I remember, many years ago, there was a young girl there, who was only 20. The chaplain asked me whether I would take her on because all the other visitors had "had a go" and had not got very far with her. I must say I did not either, except that I think I learned much more from her than she learned from me—I mean about her attitudes. When I asked her why she did it, she said: "Tell me of any other job where you can get up late in the morning and earn the sort of money that I am earning".

The effect of rehabilitation or doing anything for her meant nothing at all, and the fact that she had been to prison once then took away that deterrent. I know the difficulty the noble Lord will find himself in when he replies, but I would hope he will be able to say that the Government are thinking along these lines and that the whole attitude to this offence has got to be changed. We really have to grow up as a society when we are dealing with adults. In the meantime, any interim measure that can be taken will be taken, and either the Criminal Law Revision Committee will be reporting almost immediately or he will say: "The whole thing has got moribund and we will just forget about it all together and get on and take action ".

8.19 p.m.


My Lords, I think it is fair to say that the principal issue which is before us this evening—and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for raising this matter in the form of his Private Member's Bill—is whether or not a prostitute who solicits in the street or in a public place should be liable to be imprisoned. That is really what we are talking about. It is an issue which, as your Lordships are aware, has been considered by two substantial bodies in the last 20 years or so, the Wolfenden Committee in 1957; and then the Working Party on Vagrancy and Street Offences in 1976.

The first thing thing I should like to say is that neither the Wolfenden Committee nor the Working Party which reported 19 years later can exactly be accused of advocating a system of criminal sanctions leading to a large-scale imprisonment of prostitutes; rather the reverse. I listened with great interest to the speech which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made, and I think that the debate which his Bill has given rise to has been of importance this evening. But, if I may say so to him, the point which he did not address his speech to was the broad effect which the 1959 Act has had. That Act reduced substantially the number of women found guilty of soliciting, and this may be said to have justified in some considerable measure the recommendations of the first body and the endorsement of those recommendations by the second.

However, the Government's attitude to the noble Lord's Bill this evening will be based on a rehearsal of the arguments put forward by either of those two bodies; not indeed on those raised during the passage of the Criminal Law Bill of 1977 when the noble Lord sought the same objective as he is seeking now. On that occasion, of course, it was the noble Lord, Lord Harris, who spoke for the Government of that time. But the Government today cannot support this Bill as it stands, and the most compelling reason is that the law on prostitution is being reviewed as part of a comprehensive exercise on the law on sexual offences by the Criminal Law Revision Committee, which is being assisted by the Policy Advisory Committee on Sexual Offences. It would be inappropriate, in the Government's submission, to consider making this one aspect of the law on prostitution revert to the position that obtained before the 1959 Act in advance of the findings of those committees, which will enable this aspect to be viewed in a more general perspective.

Because the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, did so, I shall not rehearse the structure of the penalties of the 1959 Act. The simple fact is that the Act provided for enhanced financial penalties, with finally—on being convicted for a third time—a prostitute who solicits being liable to a maximum term of imprisonment of three months imposable instead of or in addition to a fine.


My Lords, will the noble Lord remind us whether, in 1959, the courts had power to award suspended sentences, or has that been introduced since then? Is not the effect of that that many prostitutes serve as much as six or nine months in prison instead of the three months originally contemplated by Parliament?


My Lords, that is rather a fast ball. As far as I remember, the suspended sentence most certainly came after that particular date. On the other hand, I do not draw the same conclusion that the noble Lord draws from the question he has asked.

If I may go on for a moment on the tack that I am on, the committee recommended that a short term of imprisonment—and I am referring to the Wolfenden Committee—would be available on third or subsequent conviction because it considered that there was some danger that persistent offenders would simply pass on the fines to their customers, or that they would seek more customers. Within the committee's reasoning was also the hope that the threat of possible imprisonment might make prostitutes more willing to accept the imposition of a probation order.

The noble Lord in his speech spoke of children being received into care because their mothers are in custody. I agree with the noble Lord that each situation of that kind is potentially tragic. But I would remind the noble Lord that without a sentence of imprisonment as a possibility there undoubtedly are people—among them prostitutes who solicit—who will not agree to a probation order. The Wolfenden Committee had some very firm remarks to make on this particular subject, and when the noble Lord also spoke, as he did, of the merits of community service for these offences I would just say that the 2 per cent. of women found guilty in 1978 of soliciting who were made subject to community service orders were of course given those orders as an alternative to imprisonment.

If I may just turn to the question of imprisonment, because this is what is uppermost in our minds, I remind the House for a moment that the Working Party on Vagrancy and Street Offences endorsed both the graduated penalty system and the availability of imprisonment as a final sanction. But, if one looks at that report, what is absolutely clear is that the 1976 working party took the view that prison was a deterrent against soliciting. Indeed, they went so far as to say, if I remember rightly, that they thought it would not greatly increase the prison population. I would put it to the House that the evidence would appear to justify that view. It would also justify the view which I sought to put forward at the beginning of my speech, that the effect of the 1959 Act had been to reduce the prevalence of soliciting in the streets. In 1959 over 12,000 women were found guilty of soliciting. A year later, by which time the Act had begun to have effect, that number had dropped to less than 3,000.

I was not sure from the speech which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, made, but it seemed to me from her remarks that she felt that soliciting was not really a public nuisance. Let me just finish, because I am going to say something nice. It may be that the noble Baroness is too young to remember the days before the 1959 Act, but at my age I can certainly remember when, before the 1959 Act, in all seriousness parts of the streets of the capital were a public nuisance. I do put it to your Lordships that in this respect the 1959 Act has had an effect.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord very much for what he has said. I had heard about it; somebody did tell me what went on! I must put it to him that this again is going backwards and just making a guess at what is going to happen. Once you have done that and emptied the streets, it is very unlikely that the same thing will happen again. It is proved by what the noble Lord has said, and the figures we have from the Home Office, that the numbers of people who have been in prison are really very, very small, otherwise there would be more people being imprisoned. The courts are not imprisoning people, but prostitution is still going on, though it is going on in a different way. It is going on, if you like, in a more comfortable way, off the streets through call girls and in all sorts of ways. That is the pattern today.


My Lords, I am interested that the noble Baroness thinks that if the final sanction of imprisonment were to be done away with one would not revert to the sort of figures for soliciting that were found before the 1959 Act. I am not saying that in any way to cross swords with the noble Baroness. I am genuinely trying to listen to what has been said in this debate, because it is an important debate this evening. In this connection may I say that I discerned a difference between the speeches and the objectives of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the speech which he made on it, would not only remove custody as a final sanction for soliciting but also reduces the maximum financial penalties which there would be for someone who is soliciting. As I understood the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, he spoke of the desirability of removing the final sanction of imprisonment, but also spoke of the necessity of substantial financial penalties. This evening, all I can say is that we shall have to see what the Criminal Law Revision Committee has to say about this aspect of the matter. But certainly there is an important distinction here between those attitudes of the two noble Lords who spoke.

Before I finish, I just want to make one or two quick points. First it is important that I should just give the statistics of the prison numbers. On 30th June 1978, which, I am afraid, is the latest date for which I have figures, there were just 37 women convicted of offences relating to prostitution who were in prison. That figure represented about 0–1 per cent. of the sentenced prison population. None the less, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was quite right to quote my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. He had every justification for doing so.

Any contribution, however minimal, to a reduction of the pressures on our prisons is generally to be welcomed. Let us make that absolutely clear. But I do not think it can be properly brought about by simply abolishing imprisonment for certain offences, without full consideration of the implications for other related areas of the criminal law and, more important, without a careful assessment of the social consequences. Indeed, in his speech the noble Lord, Lord Harris, gave a word of warning about measures which are very often, with the best will in the world, designed to reduce the prison population, and may be found, in the final event, to be counter-productive.

Incidentally, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked me whether the Criminal Law Revision Committee would be dealing with Section 5 of the Public Order Act in its deliberations. My answer to that question is that the CLRC will deal with all aspects of the law on prostitution, including the possibility of using provisions in other legislation, such as Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked me when the Criminal Law Revision Committee would report. We may have to wait until next year for their working paper, and perhaps a year or two after that for their final report, covering the whole range of sexual offences, to be published. But I suggest that it is worth waiting until the full examination, which the previous Government asked these committees to undertake, is completed.

Finally, there were two questions which my noble friends Lady Vickers and Lady Hornsby-Smith asked me, and I am sorry that I cannot give fuller replies. My noble friend Lady Vickers asked me about the present conditions at Holloway. I have not visited Holloway for exactly a year and I am therefore speaking on advice, which is that at the moment the real problem in the prison is with remand prisoners. On rare occasions it has been found necessary to keep sentenced prisoners locked up for prolonged periods during the day, but they are almost always allowed association on most days, and would it were even better than that.

But it is the case that the particular difficulty arises with remand prisoners. Those who elect to work are naturally out of their cells while working, but for those who elect not to work it is sometimes difficult to allow association periods, because of staff shortages. May I just add that we are pressing ahead as fast as possible with the building project at Holloway, about which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, spoke. One of the things that I am glad to be able to say to your Lordships this evening is that at least during the last year one of the silver linings to the many clouds in the prison service is that recruitment to the prison service has enormously improved. I hope that this, in its turn, will have its effect not only on men's, but also on women's prisons.

I am afraid that I am answering my noble friend Lady Hornsby-Smith off the cuff, when I say that, as I understand it, the noble Lord's Bill would not have any effect on the provisions of the Children and Young Persons Act, with regard to taking young people into care. I must finish, and I merely express a hope, which is that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, may feel it right, in the light of this debate, not to proceed with this Bill, in the knowledge that he will none the less be able to return to it in due course, because of the reports to which I have referred this evening.

8.35 p.m.


My Lords, I should have been very satisfied with the debate which has just taken place, if I had listened only to the weighty and significant speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, since he was the Minister who was sitting on the other side of the House on the Criminal Law Bill of 1977. His views have shifted significantly since then, in that he now does not see prison as an appropriate penalty for this offence.

If I may say so to the Minister, it is no good him trying to drive a wedge between the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and myself on this issue, because in drafting this Bill I was not particularly concerned with the amount of the fine, but was simply enabling the House to discuss the general principle of whether or not imprisonment is an appropriate penalty for this offence. If we could get that out of the way, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and I would have no difficulty whatsoever in agreeing on what kind of levels the fines should be.

I was also very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, with her immense knowledge and experience, for having taking part in this debate and for having emphasised, as she did, that the provisions of Section 1 of the Street Offences Act arc incompatible with, at any rate, the spirit of the Sex Discrimination Act and should be looked at in that light.

I am grateful, too, to the noble Baroness, Lady Hornsby-Smith, although I did not entirely agree with her. I thought that she enabled some points, which could have got in the way of the consideration of this Bill as red herrings, to be clearly dealt with by the Minister. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, rightly pointed out to your Lordships that this is a job for Parliament and not for any number of committees, however weighty and important they may be.

I really think, in view of the timescale that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has given to us, that the Criminal Law Revision Committee will not report before next summer and then it will be in the form of a working paper which will lead to a final report, perhaps two years later, that I was far too optimistic in the timescale that I mentioned at the beginning of this debate, when I said that it might be possible to have legislation on the Street Offences Act, in general, in the Session 1982–83. What the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has just said means that we could not expect anything to happen before 1984–85, at the earliest.

While, as the noble Lord indicated, it is not appropriate for us to proceed with this Bill at such a late stage in the Session, when it would be impossible, even with the full backing of the Government, to get it on to the statute book, I am quite certain that, in the light of the timetable which the noble Lord has mentioned, we shall not have heard the end of it, but that others, apart from myself, will wish to introduce legislation with a better chance of success, at the beginning of the next Session.

We have, as the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said, to deal with this matter in an interim manner. Even if we cannot change the law, there is the valuable suggestion which she made that guidance should be given to the courts, so that they would use this penalty only as a last resort. The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, did not touch on this point and perhaps it needs a little more consideration.

There were two questions which I also put to him, concerning the number of children taken into care after sentencing where a woman had previously been given a suspended sentence of three months, which was added on to a further sentence imposed by the magistrates, so that she did six or nine months in total. There was a further question which I asked, and which the noble Lord may be able to answer in writing. But as I have said, I think it would be inappropriate for us to deal with the Bill at this late stage in the Session. However, I take this opportunity of giving the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, and the Government notice that, if nobody else brings in a more comprehensive Bill this autumn, early in the Session when it has a chance of success, I shall be doing so myself. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the Bill.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill, by leave, withdrawn.