HL Deb 20 February 1997 vol 578 cc777-9

3.11 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, following legislation to limit sexual offences by British citizens against minors overseas, they will take steps to discover how many prostitutes under 18 years of age are active in the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, it is very difficult to estimate the number of prostitutes of any age, but particularly those under 18. The covert nature of juvenile prostitution makes it difficult to arrive at meaningful figures for the actual number of children involved. However, I can tell the House that in 1995 there were 364 instances of females and five of males under the age of 18 being cautioned or convicted for offences under Section 1 of the Street Offences Act 1959.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, even if her figures seriously understate the problem. I wish also to thank Her Majesty's Government collectively for introducing Part II of the Sex Offenders Act following decisions made in this House. Do the Government accept all the recommendations of the report by the Children's Society on the subject of child prostitution produced in 1995, and in particular its bearing on co-operation between the Home Office and the Department of Health and among all relevant local agencies towards full implementation of the Children Act 1989?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comments about the Government accepting Part II of the Sex Offenders Act. I put on record our thanks to the noble Lord for being so persistent and assiduous in making sure that the changes were brought about. It would be over-simplistic for me merely to answer yes to the question and say that I do not have time to give a considered response to the noble Lord's question about the Children's Society report.

One of the key aspects of the report is the recommendation of a multi-agency approach to the issue, with local authorities, health authorities, probation services, families, the voluntary sector and the Government all playing their part. We absolutely and wholeheartedly endorse that approach.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not want in any way to play down the issue of child prostitution or to say that it is not serious. However, may I ask the Minister a question as a survey researcher rather than as an Opposition spokesman? Has she asked the research and statistics division of the Home Office how it would tackle the problem of measuring prostitution? If so, what answer did she receive? It seems to me to be an impossible question.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am inclined to agree with the noble Lord. As I said, it is very difficult. Sadly, juvenile prostitution frequently takes place behind closed doors; we are simply not aware of it.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

So to speak!

Baroness Blatch

I do not regard it as a matter for hilarity. It is very serious. Young people are being used and abused behind closed doors. Therefore it is very difficult to be accurate about the extent of the problem. The emphasis, wherever we come across juvenile prostitution, is on the care of the juvenile. We are doing what we can. As the noble Lord is aware, we are strengthening sentencing; we are already reviewing the penalties for sex offences; and we are doing what we can to make sure that young people are diverted away from this activity. But there is no straight answer. The matter is very difficult.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the report by Barnardos on a project it undertook in Bradford last year? There it found many young girls aged between 13 and 17 who were prostitutes having horrific things done to them by their pimps. What are social services and the police in Bradford doing about the problem?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that is probably the most evil trade of all. I refer to pimps, and the way in which they use not only children but adults too. Like Barnardos, we take the matter very seriously. We know from work done in Bradford that young people are inveigled by someone much older. They are daughters whose families in the first instance feel only slight worry about the liaison; eventually, however, the liaison becomes almost ownership of the young person.

The rest of the story is history. We are aware of the work done by Barnardos. We are doing what we can. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, in my first answer, it is mainly a matter of working in a multi-agency way at local level to do what we can to make sure that these young people are protected and diverted away from this type of crime.

Earl Russell

My Lords, will the Minister give the House an assurance that no young person under 18 is forced into prostitution because he or she lacks legal visible means of support?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the means of support for people in this country—I shall not say that it is "generous" because I should be shot down in flames, but it is such that nobody needs to resort to prostitution in order to eat and live. We will do what we can to divert people from this evil trade. I give the noble Earl an assurance that it is no part of this Government's policy that people should have to resort to prostitution in order to live.