HL Deb 18 November 1997 vol 583 cc459-62

2.56 p.m.

The Earl of Bradford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to deal with unauthorised advertising in London phone boxes.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the unauthorised activity referred to in the Question mainly concerns prostitutes' advertising cards. The Government are concerned about that problem because the increasingly explicit cards deter people from using public call boxes. I can assure noble Lords that appropriate measures are in hand. BT is taking unilateral action to bar incoming calls to BT numbers advertised in BT call boxes. BT and the City of Westminster are taking steps to clean out phone boxes on a regular basis. The Government are also looking at options for using the criminal law to deal with the nuisance.

The Earl of Bradford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply and for making my Question a little clearer. I may have been over-delicate in the way that I phrased it. Does he consider that giving greater powers to Oftel to allow call barring to numbers other than BT numbers would be helpful in this situation? Alternatively, does he accept that the police should be given greater powers to prosecute and that fines should be much heavier than they are at the moment?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, BT sought the support of other telecom operators to bar the calls. However, the scheme was challenged by lawyers acting on behalf of the London Committee of Call Girls. The lawyers argued that the co-operation between BT and the other telecoms operators represented a registrable agreement under the Restrictive Trade Practices Act. However, BT has continued unilaterally with its own ban. Since February it has issued 733 warning letters and barred incoming calls to 104 lines. In addition, 94 customers ceased renting BT lines during the process.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, will the Minister turn his mind to an equally important problem related to telephone kiosks; that is, the multiplication of kitsch-designed conflicting kiosks throughout the capital and the country? Is he aware that the Royal Fine Art Commission was responsible for a competition which resulted in the classic Gilbert Scott telephone kiosks? Having cleared up the call girls, will the Government see that a similar competition is organised today?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I shall certainly bring the noble Lord's comments to the attention of my right honourable friend. However, the concern in the Question about phone boxes is that they should be available for use and that people should not be deterred from using them.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the Minister agree that prostitution is an evil that will always be with us? One of the most disastrous occurrences in recent years was the decision by the Law Lords to ban the Ladies Directory. That directory was an inoffensive—in one sense—publication which no one was compelled to buy. It was put on display discreetly at newsagents. When it was banned, having been described by the Law Lords as immoral, it was inevitably newsagents who had to be harried by the police to remove the cards with which telephone kiosks are now inundated. Does the Minister agree that the matter needs to be re-examined?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I hesitate to trespass on the territory to which the noble Lord invites me to move. All I can say is that prostitution is not illegal in this country. However, whatever way information is disseminated, it must not cause offence to other people.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can the Minister say what on earth is the use of barring a telephone call when the girl can obtain another application, perhaps using the name Mimi instead of Fifi?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the girls can use other telephones and other telephone companies. That is one of the results of privatisation of the telephone business. Oftel is looking into the matter. British Telecom is not able to bar calls of other telephone companies; that would he contrary to its licence. Oftel is looking into the problem to see whether it can be dealt with.

Lord Henley

My Lords, can the noble Lord expand on what his right honourable friend the Home Secretary said last week about possibly using the crime and disorder Bill to bring in changes in legislation and possibly increasing the powers of the police? Has further thought been given by his colleagues in the Home Office to amendments which might help alleviate the problem?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the noble Lord is right in saying that the matter was raised in another place last Friday. Existing legislation allows for prosecution for criminal damage in the case of stickers and for littering in the case of cards. Westminster City Council has used the legislation to prosecute carders. However, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is considering, as he said during the debate on the policing of London, dealing with the issue. I am sure that the noble Lord has read the remarks of my right honourable friend in Hansard. I am certain he will let us know his decision in a short while.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, following the question from my noble friend Lord Annan, does the Minister agree that the advertisements have a certain advantage, particularly for the millions of visitors who come to London during the year?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, research shows that people who visit London find the advertising less objectionable than the citizens of London. I can only repeat that it deters people from using the public facility of call boxes. That is the problem to which the Government must pay attention.