HL Deb 16 October 2003 vol 653 cc1166-86

7.31 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how they plan to respond to Recommendation 53 in their consultation document of July 2000 Setting the Boundaries—Reforming the Law on Sexual Offences that, "There should be a further review of the law on prostitution".

The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I may start by saying how grateful I am to other noble Lords who have indicated their wish to speak in this debate.

My purpose in asking the Question on the Order Paper is to attempt to take forward the debate which we had earlier this year on Clause 56 of the Sexual Offences Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and I moved amendments which sought to separate the issues of child abuse and sex trafficking from consensual adult prostitution, and we were supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I am delighted to see that both noble Lords are in their places and taking part in the debate.

We all drew attention to the way that recent changes in the law have done nothing to improve the safety of women working in the sex industry. An earlier example was the prohibition of carding—placing cards advertising sexual services in phone boxes—in Sections 46 and 47 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. That made it harder for women working in the relative safety of their own flats to advertise for clients, with the consequence that many were tempted to resume soliciting on the streets, where the risk of serious assault is many times greater.

Research carried out by the Economic and Social Research Council among indoor and street-working prostitutes in three British cities found that women working on Glasgow's streets were six times more likely to be violently attacked by clients than those working indoors in Edinburgh, and four times more likely than indoor workers in Leeds. The consequence of recent legislative changes has been that we now have some of the most punitive laws on prostitution anywhere in the world, in particular given the increasing number of anti-social behaviour orders being directed at women working in the sex industry. At the same time, we are doing little to address the vulnerability of sex workers or to tackle the influence of pimps on those women.

Much of this was recognised by the Setting the Boundaries report team, which set as its aim the creation of a safe, just and tolerant society. But prostitution was not included in its terms of reference and it did not have access to all the latest research from different countries around the world. However, Setting the Boundaries does contain the important recommendation, and repeated in my Question, that there should be, a further review of the law". My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton, speaking on 13th May in Committee on the Sexual Offences Bill, said that the Government, would look to see what the scope of an appropriate review should be in all the issues surrounding prostitution".—[Official Report, 13/5/03; col. 187.] He indicated that on Report he hoped to say precisely what the scope of the review should be. Unfortunately, on Report, my noble and learned friend said: there remains much groundwork to be done before we will be in a position to announce the timing of such a debate".—[Official Report, 9/6/03; col. 61.] When it comes, the review must contain a detailed examination of how other countries have changed their laws on prostitution over the past decade. In Denmark, for example, Danish-born sex workers can operate legally indoors but are not allowed to pay third parties such as pimps. Germany has designated areas where the women can work. Brothels were legalised in Holland in 2000. There, women pay their taxes, take out health insurance and receive social welfare benefits. Brothels are seen in Holland as professional businesses, which can be inspected at any time, like other businesses, to make sure that they comply with labour laws. The premises have strict rules about hygiene and condom use. Any form of forced prostitution, pimping or trafficking is illegal.

Earlier this year, New Zealand passed the Prostitution Reform Bill. The philosophy behind it— which might, I suspect, be shared by many of your Lordships—is that prostitution is neither condoned nor condemned. It is acknowledged that prostitution can be harmful to sex workers and that that harm should be addressed by legislative means. The Bill had the stated aims of safeguarding the human rights of sex workers; protecting sex workers from exploitation; promoting the welfare and occupational safety and health of sex workers; creating an environment that is conducive to public health; and protecting children from exploitation in relation to prostitution. The New Zealand Parliament believes that criminalisation is not the way to achieve these aims and that it is better to focus on decriminalisation, improving standards and protection.

Decriminalisation is also the approach adopted by the state parliament in New South Wales, Australia. Since 1995, prostitutes are permitted to work away from the streets in well-run brothels which operate without interference from the police. There are offences relating to coercion and advertising premises for prostitution, and soliciting in a street near to a school, dwelling, church or hospital is prohibited.

Its neighbouring state, Victoria, has gone in a different direction. There it has adopted a licensing and planning permit approach, and only persons who obtain a licence from the Business Licensing Authority can lawfully offer a prostitution service. The BLA also, in a very matter of fact way, licenses motor-car traders, estate agents, credit providers, introduction agents, pawnbrokers and travel agents—an interesting combination of trades and professions. Street soliciting was made illegal in Victoria for both clients and prostitutes. There are strict rules on what is allowed in the licensed premises. The manager or licensee has to be present at all times; no alcohol, no drugs and no one under the age of 18 are permitted.

I was recently in Melbourne on a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Australia and was able to meet senior officials of the Business Licensing Authority and to see one of these operations at first hand. I was chaperoned by one of the BLA officials and by a senior Conservative Member of another place who was a fellow CPA delegate. We visited one of the leading brothels in the city of Melbourne. The other one, of a comparable size, is so successful that it has a Stock Exchange listing.

It was a pretty cheerless establishment, with dingy furniture and threadbare carpets. But it was clean and the rules on drugs and alcohol were strictly observed, as were the requirements for showers, clean towels, panic buttons and the provision of condoms.

On speaking to some of the sex workers, they appeared quite articulate. One had worked on the streets around Leicester Square in London, which she said had been a terrifying experience, particularly compared with the relative security of a licensed premises in Melbourne. I was told by a number of people that the principles underlying the legislation had included a determination to keep out organised crime, and in pursuit of this no licensee can operate more than one business. People with convictions for dishonesty or violence are not granted licences—they are given only to persons of good repute.

Critics of the Victoria regime argue that it is bureaucratic, as the costs of administering it exceed revenue from licence fees two to three times over. It is also admitted that there are still large numbers of unauthorised premises—at least as many again, and perhaps more.

The administrators also admit that they are not doing enough to encourage sex workers to leave the industry. This last criticism has been taken up by representatives of the Christian Churches in New Zealand. A highly respected opponent of the new New Zealand law is Bishop Richard Randerson, Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Auckland. He urged his Government to work with the Church and other social service agencies to address the economic factors driving many into prostitution and do more to help people leave the sex industry through programmes on health, housing, education, employment and drug detoxification.

Bishop Randerson and his fellow Church leaders prefer the approach adopted by the Swedish Government, which is one country I have not yet mentioned. Sweden has unambiguously adopted a pro-feminist position, arguing that prostitution is a form of male social violence, with women sex workers as its victims. In 1999, the law in Sweden was changed, criminalising the clients of prostitutes. Purchasing sexual services carries a penalty of a fine or up to six months' imprisonment. It relates to all forms of prostitution, whether purchased in the street, in brothels or in massage parlours. No criminal sanctions apply to sex workers.

There are mixed accounts of what the new law in Sweden has achieved. On the one hand, it is claimed that it has drastically reduced the number of prostitutes on the streets of the major cities. But the prostitute women groups say that it has made things less safe for them, and there are anecdotes that large numbers of men now travel over the border to Norway to buy sex.

Other countries—more enlightened than ourselves—are tackling prostitution quite differently from us, as this brief account describes. While they differ markedly in their practical application, they are consistent in one respect—they take seriously the rights of women who take part in the sex industry and seek, by a variety of means, to make life safer for them and to improve their health and well-being and, in many cases, actively encourage them to leave the industry.

With the greatest respect to my noble friend and her colleagues in the Government, very little of the legislation we have passed here over the past three decades comes anywhere near doing what other countries are attempting. That is why we need the review, and we need it now.

7.42 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for securing this debate and for introducing this important topic as he did. Although I was not present during the earlier debate to which he alluded, I am, however, very familiar with the carding issue he referred to then.

The noble Lord said to me, prior to the debate, that it would be good to hear a former Member of Parliament for Soho on this subject. I am not at all sure about that, but it is by generalising from my narrow experience as an inner London MP that I want to contribute to the debate, and on the equally narrow point that others are affected by prostitution than simply the prostitute and her, or his, client.

Although the understandable shorthand of your Lordships' House abbreviated this Unstarred Question to the single word "Prostitution", the actual and full words of the Question on the Notices and Orders of the Day, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, said, ask the Government about their response to Recommendation 53 in the consultation document of July 2000, namely that there should be a further review of the law on prostitution. Those were the final words of Chapter 7 of Setting the Boundaries, the chapter devoted to trafficking and sexual exploitation. The opening paragraph of the chapter included the sentence: It is important to emphasise that we are not looking at how or whether prostitution should be legal or illegal: that is beyond our remit". The Question of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, implies that the Government's plan on how to respond to Recommendation 53 is still awaited. It may be that we shall receive the answer tonight, when the noble Baroness the Minister winds up, although, looking at her face, I suspect we may not. Until the Government respond, noble Lords are entitled to adduce issues for consideration. Mine come under the penultimate sentence of paragraph 7.8.1 in the same relevant Chapter 7, which states: Communities are very concerned about overt prostitution in their midst, and about the linkage between sex markets and other forms of criminality, including drugs". On three occasions during my 24 years as Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster, the concerns identified in the sentence that I have quoted became so acute in three different parts of south Westminster that I was obliged to seek the time and attention of three Home Office Ministers—two Home Secretaries and one Minister of State. Two of them are, sadly, now dead, but the noble Lord, Lord Rees, the earliest of them, is still, happily, very much with us. All three Ministers were responsive.

The British, and inner Londoners in particular, are live and let live people. However, on all three occasions—in Mayfair, Soho and St Marylebone—the chafing irritation and environmental disturbance had become locally so intolerable, not only to residents but, in at least two cases out of three, to the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker as well, that they came to me about it.

There has always been a tradition of areas of critical mass in London in terms of prostitution. In what I say next, I eschew any personal reputation for erudition, but I pay tribute to Stephen Inwood's A History of London, whose 936 pages I reviewed some five years ago. The Westminster tradition of prostitution is an old one. A 13th century traveller listed the whores of Charing—now Charing Cross—among the sights of London alongside the relics of Westminster and the churchyard of St Paul's. I fear some of their custom came from the entourages of the Royal Palace and of Westminster Abbey, but from the 12th to the 17th century, the south bank of the river was notorious for being the heart of the trade.

Seven Bankside "stewmongers" paid the poll tax in 1381, and were all making a good living. The Southwark "stews", or more recognisably brothels, were regulated by ordinances issued in the 15th century by the then Bishop of Winchester, controlling rents and opening days, banning enticement and the sale of food and drink, forbidding the employment of diseased, married or unwilling women, and insisting that a prostitute who took money from a customer should, "ly still with him" all night.

Henry VIII brought this early experiment in state-regulated prostitution to an abrupt end by ordering the closure of the Southwark stews in 1546, but the prostitutes simply reappeared in Shoreditch, in St Katharine's by the Tower or in Holborn. The City itself had—and I think still has—four Love Lanes, three Maiden Lanes and a final lane, now renamed, whose original name I cannot repeat in your Lordships' House, where I regard Hansard as the equivalent of a family newspaper. The prostitutes also congregated in Smithfield but they returned to Southwark, then under the City's jurisdiction, before finally transferring to Covent Garden in the 17th century.

Thereafter Mrs Goadby of Berwick Street in Soho, Mother Needham of St James's and Molly King and Mother Douglas of Covent Garden were familiar figures in contemporary novels and prints and, at the turn of the 18th century, sex tourists in London could even buy a guidebook entitled Harris's Book of Covent Garden Ladies. When the gates of St James's Park were locked at night, the grounds were patrolled by prostitutes and, as we learn from Boswell, by their customers.

Even in the 19th century the very comprehensive Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 did not give the police a right to enter what by 1850 had become the 3,000 brothels of the metropolis. Prostitutes were still openly present in theatres to attract custom, as they had been when the 16th century theatres were still on the south bank. The effect in the 19th century was to drive respectable and fashionable families from drama to the opera. Prostitutes still lined the streets in St James's, Covent Garden, Marylebone and Whitechapel, and the 30 or so arrests on a typical night were mainly for being drunk or disorderly. The Home Secretary in 1857 annotated a letter with the sentence: An attempt to suppress these things by legislation would be quite absurd". The past century is more familiar to all of us so I shall not extend this backdrop save to say that from the 1930s the Messinas of Soho, an Italian family, imported Belgian, French, Italian and Spanish girls, installing them in flats in the West End in the same way that the Albanians are now said to preside over most of an empire in Soho alone whose takings were—so the source document for this debate says—£1 million a month in the year 2000, while profit from the London area as a whole ranged between a quarter of a billion pounds and half a billion pounds.

I have gone into this history at some length to make the point that such concentrations of activity are bound to impinge on the neighbourhoods in which they are situated. Of the three cases I brought before Home Office Ministers, the first and third, in Mayfair and Marylebone, were resolved by putting in considerable police manpower—and, in the case of Mayfair, womanpower as 24 women police constables were deployed for months in a very confined area. But the consequence, of course, was that the prostitutes simply decamped either to King's Cross or to Tooting or elsewhither, and that has separate consequences for those unintended destination communities.

The case in Soho was rather different. There, by 1980, there were 164 distinct sex establishments established within the bounds of Soho, and no sign that they would not flood outside Soho into adjacent neighbourhoods. They were not, of course, all practising prostitution but the effect of environmental pollution on the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, and their residential customers, was the same.

I put the problem to the late and still lamented Lord Whitelaw, as he then was not. I have to say that his officials were not keen that he should respond, but he took me at my word about critical mass, and the licensing of sex establishments legislation was the result, leaving to local authorities the right to determine the number of licences. The effect on Soho residents and on decent traders was benign in the extreme and Soho owes its multi-faceted prosperity and, indeed, attractions over the past two decades to it.

What, therefore, this speech amounts to is a plea to the Government that, if they are minded to review the laws on prostitution, they should bear these considerations in mind. When we debated the Licensing Bill the Government were patently surprised by some of the evidence of conditions on the ground in inner cities—Manchester, for instance, as well as London—adduced by the Opposition Benches; evidence which in turn was likely to militate against the Deputy Prime Minister's plans for urban regeneration.

I say a final word about the contemporary scene. The Albanians who have taken over from the Italians are accustomed to settle matters with a knife. The Jamaicans who have brought crack cocaine into Soho in the manner described in the sentence I quoted earlier, do so with a gun. Either of these is unattractive in the heart of London's leisure industry and tourist district. The lesson is to see whether by legislation we can secure dispersal of the sex industry instead of concentration. Lest I seem preoccupied by the involuntary spectators and their experience, let me close by saying that I feel profound sympathy for the eastern European girls whom the Albanians bring here, who I suspect would have fallen foul of at least one, but probably rather more, of the Bishop of Winchester's 15th century rules in the Southwark stews.

7.53 p.m.

Lord Carey of Clifton

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to offer some brief thoughts on this debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for his determination to get a thorough appraisal of laws relating to prostitution. As I am sure is the case with other noble Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, for his historical survey. If I understood the noble Lord correctly, it appears that the Bishop of Winchester to whom he referred had a lot to answer for.

No doubt when a former Archbishop of Canterbury stands up to speak about prostitution it is assumed that he will be against it. I shall not disappoint your Lordships on that conclusion. For moral reasons I am against prostitution. It is the most liquid and transitory of relationships undermining marriage as well as communities.

However, it is not the moral argument that I wish to address but broader issues relating to the compassion and care which I believe to be at the heart of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner. I recognise that in the past the Church, along with other sections of society, has been so concerned to maintain moral rectitude and high standards that our attitude to women engaged in prostitution has been less than Christian. It has been harsh, unfeeling, uncaring and condemnatory. We have assumed that women engaged in such activities are worthy of society's disapproval and punishment. In recoiling, we have abandoned the possibility of making a difference to their lives. I recently read Dr Helen Self's book Prostitution, Women and Misuse of the Law, which I commend to noble Lords.

My attitude on the issue changed some years ago when I met a young prostitute who started on the game, as it is called, when she was in her very early teens. When I met her she was already a reformed character, having been befriended by a church group and given a home for herself and her two small children. I was so taken by her honesty and determination to better herself that my wife and I linked up with her and became very good friends with her. We began to support her. To my surprise, four years ago she told me that she felt called to the ordained ministry. She is now a priest in the Church of England, a happy, intelligent young woman who is proving to be an excellent minister. But her story is disturbing. She had a terrible start in life, being thrown on the streets, destitute and lonely. She was abused by pimps and let down by authority. She was arrested when she was 15 and found herself on a charge sheet. She now had a record, and the way was barred to do something more useful with her life. She told me that she had known violence, intimidation, abuse and fear. It is a miracle that she is now a reformed person who can speak of God's love with an authenticity that most sermons lack. She is quite convinced that present laws work against the chances of women breaking free of prostitution or escaping from a culture of violence that intimidates many women trapped in it. She has expressed her willingness to come to the House of Lords to meet as many Peers as want to hear her story, and I would be most willing to arrange that if there were a sufficient number.

Although it is true the Church has been uncompassionate and uncaring, that is not the total picture. The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, mentioned the Church in New Zealand, and there are many illustrations of caring Christians working among prostitutes, providing hospitality and unjudgmental care. A few days ago, I was talking with a young woman who works with several other youngsters in a Christian project in Spitalfields. Last year, they gave support to 223 different prostitutes, listening to their concerns and endeavouring to show them a better lifestyle.

In the vast majority of cases, the women have not chosen that way of life because it gives them an enjoyable lifestyle, a comfortable existence and the chance to meet a nicer kind of person. They live that way, in the majority of cases, because of lack of hope. Many end up on the street because of drug abuse. For some, it is part of an inevitable spiral that started with sexual abuse in childhood. Out of sight, of course, are the many unknown women kept in almost slave-like conditions by gangs who feed off their earnings.

The urgent question is, "What can we do?". As we have heard, it would be foolish to return to the old days of punitive legislation in an attempt to reduce numbers and clear up streets because of public cries of, "Not in my backyard". We need legislation that will protect vulnerable people and chastise those most guilty of abusing them. As I understand it, the current law is somewhat contradictory. The law pushes women on to the streets through the Sexual Offences Act 1956 and off the streets through the Street Offences Act 1959. The Sexual Offences Act 1985 forces them to make rapid and sometimes dangerous judgments before jumping into a stranger's car, sometimes with dreadful consequences.

In case of misunderstanding, I want to repeat that I am against prostitution on moral grounds. Prostitution mocks women by making them a commodity, cheapens and devalues sexual relationships, and demeans us all as societies. However, it is for different moral reasons that I make a contribution to the debate. My instinct tells me that our current attitude towards prostitution raises urgent moral questions that a good and civilised society needs to address. We will not get rid of prostitution by condemning it and sanitising it by removing it far from public gaze. Perhaps we shall diminish it as a social problem only when we care more deeply for the women who are its victims. Therefore, I support the noble Lord's appeal for a review of the law as far as it affects prostitution.

8 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, this is the first time in almost 12 years in this House that I have attended or participated in a debate in which no noble Lord has claimed any direct knowledge of the subject at hand. But for all that, I have listened to three informative speeches, all of which I agree with. We live in an understanding age and it is time to take a step back and say that we know prostitution is going to take place and that we want to make the conditions under which it takes place the most agreeable and sensible for everyone who gets involved.

I share the position which the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, has taken: we must give priority to the safety of the women who involve themselves in this trade in order to ensure that they are safe from attack, are not exploited by other people and can undertake their trade in reasonable circumstances. At the top end of the trade, as we have learnt from recent newspaper reports, it can be extremely profitable. It works out at about £4,000 a week, according to reports of the convent-educated madam who is being tried in France. That is almost what a lawyer earns and the equivalent seems to me to be entirely reasonable.

At the lower end, women are exploited in an awful way. They are hooked on drugs and enslaved to pimps. That happens because they are forced to ply their trade in ways that are fundamentally unsafe. They are denied access to the very aspects of our society— namely, the police and other helping agencies—who should be their supporters in these circumstances. It is time that we looked at how we can set our laws to rights, rather than every few years being happy at the extension of anti-social behaviour orders to prostitutes, as if that were an answer to the situation. It is just a medieval suppression of the trade and is absolutely no answer at all.

Equally to be supported are my noble friend's arguments about the people among whom the trade is plied. If there is a concentration of it, it becomes extremely anti-social behaviour to have going on around one. The answer to concentration is to enable prostitutes freely to advertise. Prostitutes turn up together in one place because that is where they can be found. We have laws against putting stickers in telephone boxes and we also have laws which prevent the stickers going up in private places, in newsagents or in sex shops. It is hard to find the legal location of other prostitutes, but if we remove the laws which prevent the proper advertising of prostitution services, it will no longer be necessary for people to concentrate together. Indeed, there will probably be an advantage in spreading out; you would be more local to the clients rather than asking them to travel long distances to wherever you might be.

There are changes we can make in the law which will benefit both sides and recognise that, yes, we want the prostitutes to be safe, but, yes, we want to be able to live our lives pretty well unconscious of the trade, if that is what we want to do. I suspect that that is the position most of us would like to find ourselves in.

I do not know whether the Government are the right people to review this matter. There is such a political downside and such a risk of sticking oneself up as a patsy for the Daily Mail on a bad day that I cannot see politicians really wanting to become involved in this type of thing or wanting to say, "Well, this is an original document coming from the Government"— whether it is Labour or Conservative—"as party policy". I believe that that is what Royal Commissions are for. That would provide a chance for things to be discussed in public, for all sides to have their say and for conclusions to be produced which are not associated with one party or the other and which, indeed, with luck, might command a degree of all-round support. I should have thought that that was the kind of forum we should be seeking, but I do not know that judges will be queuing up to be in charge of it.

However, if we could move forward on that basis and give ourselves time to think and time to talk this through in a forum where no one would feel difficult about expressing, or holding, their views, I should be delighted. It is so unsatisfactory to allow things to carry on as they are. So many people are being hurt by it.

8.6 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, on securing this debate and on the very clear way that he laid out the issues before us this evening. I also want to congratulate Dr Helen Self on her excellent book on the subject of prostitution, which the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, has just recommended to us.

It has been a very interesting debate on a vitally important issue. It is important not just to those who are actually involved in the sex trade but also to local communities who are affected by it, as was so colourfully described by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville. As he was speaking, I found myself thinking that perhaps we are today's equivalent of the relics of Westminster that he mentioned.

However, to be more serious, there is much evidence that the incidence of prostitution is on the increase, and the Government cannot, and I am sure do not wish to, ignore the vast amount of human misery that the sex trade represents. In answer to a parliamentary Question from Dr Brian Iddon as far back as March this year, the Minister, Hilary Benn, said that the Home Secretary was, examining the scope for a review of [the law on] prostitution".— [Official Report, Commons, 24/3/03; col. 16.] As that was seven months ago, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us this evening that a plan for such a review is now in place. To do so would demonstrate considerable and welcome political courage.

On these Benches, we believe that few women or men voluntarily choose to be sex workers, although they have a right to do so. Most of them feel forced into it. The causes of that are various, but the main ones are undoubtedly poverty and sexual abuse, as well as drug addition. Increases in homelessness and lack of access to benefits have made many young people vulnerable to those who offer them money, shelter or drugs in return for sex. Numerous studies have identified strong links between prostitution and sexual abuse in childhood. That is why it is so vital to break the cycle of sexual abuse of children through all the initiatives that the Government are undertaking, and more.

Three overarching factors are clear to me when considering what to do: first, that sex workers are more often than not victims themselves and we should treat them as vulnerable people to be helped, not harassed; secondly, that prostitution is more a public health issue than a public order issue; and, thirdly, that this is an international issue and our solutions should take into account lessons learnt in other countries and contain elements of co-operation—they will not work in isolation.

Those involved with prostitution are increasingly at risk from violence, disease and drug addiction—if, indeed, the addiction was not one of the prime causes of the prostitution in the first place. Although the Government's drugs policies are not the subject of our debate this evening, they are clearly very relevant to it. If you find effective ways of reducing the number of people addicted to hard drugs, you will reduce a major push factor into the sex trade.

Then there is the international dimension. Many of the prostitutes working in the UK have been trafficked from abroad. In his evidence to the Setting the Boundaries team, Inspector Paul Holmes of the Metropolitan Police estimated that as many as 75 per cent of sex workers in London are foreign, and, as we have heard, most of them come from the Balkans. Another witness said that in eastern Europe 80 to 90 per cent of the new unemployed are women who have few opportunities to gain employment any other way. Many, although not actually imprisoned, are virtually imprisoned here because of their lack of English and fear of the police. They know that they are here illegally, although many were lured here with promises of legitimate jobs and a better life. So they fear deportation if they are caught. That could mean rejection by their families, or worse, when they go home.

Clearly, the way we deal with these women requires enormous sensitivity, understanding and the compassion urged upon us by the noble Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, as well as joined-up action on the part of the police and immigration services. Can the Minister tell the House how the two services are working together to address the massive problem of people being trafficked to this country to be exploited for sex?

Inspector Holmes made it clear that it is very difficult to get the women to testify against those who exploit them. Instead, police action has to be based on intelligence so it is vital that some of that fear is taken away by the implementation of new policies.

Unfortunately, although selling sex is not illegal, the current legal framework surrounding prostitution pushes prostitutes into a criminal sub-culture which does not serve the needs of the police, the sex workers or the communities where they cause a nuisance. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, although I forgive him for ignoring the possibility of a future Liberal Democrat government, that giving a prostitute a series of anti-social behaviour orders for soliciting is not a serious and positive contribution to the problem. That is why it is vital that we have a full review and consider the options as well as the experiences of other countries where they have experimented with changes to the law.

Liberal Democrats believe that no one of either gender should be obliged to become a sex worker. Various related public policies can reduce that pressure. Ensuring that everyone obtains a good education or training; enhancing the economic independence of women and young people; improving the benefits system; ensuring good, affordable child care for those young mothers who want to work legitimately and working to combat sexual abuse of women and children would all help. The Government are doing a good deal but there is always more to do.

We also believe that the Government must face up to the public health implications of the sex trade. To neglect that is short-sighted in view of the immense dangers of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases as well as the health dangers associated with drug abuse.

We believe that local health authorities should be responsible for health care, outreach, education and HIV prevention services for male and female prostitutes and their clients to promote safer sex practices and reduce the incidence of HIV. That would be much easier to do in a regime where the sex trade was regulated and not pushed underground.

Therefore, we believe that the current laws that force prostitutes into the criminal sub-culture should be repealed and replaced after appropriate consultation with a realistic, fairer more effective framework of law specifically designed to protect vulnerable individuals, to regulate prostitution and to prevent nuisance.

We would replace the ineffective legislation on kerb crawling and soliciting with a new offence of harassment covering the behaviour of pimps, prostitutes and clients. Although we are opposed to the establishment of state or local authority run brothels, we would want to see a system to regulate the activities of privately owned brothels. That would allow the full range of inspections to take place and the full range of health and welfare services to reach the sex workers.

The safety, well-being and human rights of these vulnerable women—they usually are women but in some cases men—must be paramount. Many of the young women concerned are mothers. Thousands of children are affected indirectly by the sex trade because their mothers are involved in it. If we want to improve their life chances we must improve those of their mothers.

For the sake of the communities that feel threatened and the vulnerable exploited people forced into prostitution and their children, I urge the Government to comply with recommendation 53 of the Setting the Boundaries report.

8.15 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I am sure we are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for initiating this debate and for giving us such a very comprehensive outline of the practice in other countries.

To say that we are dealing with the oldest profession in the world may be of little comfort at the start of my speech. Nevertheless, it is worth recalling the legislative landmarks on the subject over the past 150 years. Conveniently, my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville has covered the earlier period.

While never entirely accepted, prostitution has been widely tolerated at various times in history, as we have heard. The Vagrancy Act 1824 was an attempt to exert extensive control over women on the streets through wide discretionary powers to arrest anyone acting suspiciously or in a riotous or indecent manner. However, in the 1860s a series of Contagious Diseases Acts introduced extensive powers to control prostitution as a public nuisance with public offences of loitering, soliciting and spreading venereal disease committed by the female prostitute. It is interesting that as early as the 1880s these measures were so hotly contested by contemporary feminists and working men that in 1886 these Acts were repealed.

The next milestone was the Wolfenden Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, which was established in 1954. That led to the Sexual Offences Act 1956 and the Street Offences Act 1959. Those Acts provided neighbourhood respectability since they drove prostitutes off the streets. But, significantly, it was the nuisance of prostitution which they addressed and not the exploitation of women. The 1956 Act attempted to deal with the exploitation by third parties by way of association and economic factors, by introducing the offences of "brothel keeping" for female offenders and "living off immoral earnings" for male offenders.

However, prosecutions for either "pimping" or "brothel keeping" have been minimal. Police complain that prosecutions involve lengthy observation which takes time and absorbs a lot of manpower and there is often a lack of evidence that the man has lived off the women's sex work. I shall return to that point.

An important development of the 1956 Act was an attempt for the first time to introduce equality between the prostitute and client by introducing the offence of "kerb-crawling". Again this proved difficult to enforce, though the effectiveness of enforcement and prosecution has been considerably improved under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. So it was an important and much needed initiative when the Government launched the Setting the Boundaries review in January 1999.

It was, if I may say so, a wise decision to restrict the terms of reference for that inquiry. It did not, for instance, examine the legal base for the regulation of prostitution or in what circumstances it could or should be legalised. It did, however, consider the offences relating to the sexual exploitation of individuals in prostitution with two important new offences—one of the sexual exploitation of adults— which were given effect to in the Sexual Offences Bill, which has just passed through your Lordships' House. Perhaps I may say how fortunate we are to have the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and my noble friend Lord Lucas who were very closely involved with that Bill. There was also an important recommendation that the law on soliciting should apply equally to men and women.

One of the most important aspects of this Bill is the section on trafficking, which draws on a Home Office paper which identified that trafficking for sexual purposes is a two-way movement: into countries which have existing sex industries which can absorb them and from countries where there is an indigenous sex industry. The report also highlighted the effect of the derisory sentences, which is a powerful disincentive to the allocation of police resources to what is in any case an unpopular role within the service.

The Sexual Offences Bill identifies three separate offences: trafficking respectively into, within and out of the United Kingdom for sexual exploitation. This last category covers the re-export of girls to be forced into prostitution abroad; for example, West African girls being sent to Italy. Each of these categories carries a maximum sentence of 14 years' imprisonment.

What should be our ideas for the future? One alternative, which has been raised in the debate, is some form of legalisation of brothels. Theoretically, that has attractions. It should get the girls off the streets, look after their health and so on, and it has been advocated by several senior police officers. However, experience has shown that it is not so simple.

My information on Melbourne comes from considerably earlier than that of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, to whom I must defer on the subject, but I am advised that in Melbourne, where brothels have been licensed since 1984, it is the old story: conditions have improved for the clients but not for the prostitutes. The latter have no control over their clients and are liable to be abused by the brothel managers. In some instances, they are required to sign contracts waiving their civil rights and entitlement to statutory health and safety protections. However, in view of what the noble Lord said, the state of Victoria should be given the benefit of the doubt.

The so-called Eros Centres in Germany have been similarly described as a reversion to neo-slavery. In the state of Nevada in the United States, even the social lives of prostitutes are strictly controlled. It has been found that even in that regulated environment, sexually transmitted diseases are difficult to detect quickly and the prostitutes become adept at concealing them to avoid ejection from the brothel. Significantly, in many legalised brothels throughout the world there is a high proportion of women from disadvantaged ethnic communities.

Then there is the decriminalisation argument, based on the acceptance in some quarters that prostitution is inevitable. That view is widely held both in the probation service and in certain police forces. The English Collective of Prostitutes advances the seductive—if I may use that word—argument that prostitution is a victimless crime. Against that there is the argument that prostitution is not empowering for women, despite the beguiling picture of economic freedom presented by traffickers to women, especially from the Far East and the Balkans.

Then there is the "zones of tolerance"—which, like decriminalisation, are superficially attractive—which have been established in Utrecht and Amsterdam in Holland and attract substantial interest in this country, particularly in Birmingham. In theory this should produce prostitute free and kerb-crawling free zones, but prostitutes complain of harassment from outside the zone and little protection within it. Their economic point of view is that a police presence discourages the clients.

Finally, there is eradication, with harsher penalties for women entering prostitution; strong support mechanisms for those wishing to leave the industry; and full criminalisation of the client and pimp, with more effective and harsher penalties. There is growing support for that approach both within the United Kingdom and in several states in the United States.

I refer your Lordships to an interesting article that appeared in the Herald in Scotland. It contrasted the attitudes to prostitution of Edinburgh—with its reputation for propriety and respectability—with the more warm-hearted and tolerant Glasgow. The policies were exactly the opposite of what might have been expected. Edinburgh's attitude is relaxed, based, among other things, on an experiment with "tolerance zones".

I should mention that in Edinburgh there was a well-known lady called Mrs Noy who was a Tory and used to turn up at Conservative fêtes—to the great embarrassment and humiliation of the Conservative Member of Parliament. I fear that takes us back a year or two, in any case. She further had a sign in her window that read, "Life is better under the Tories".

By contrast, the Glasgow approach is very strict. I quote a spokesman: our goal is to work towards the elimination of prostitution, not the tolerance of it". In fact, neither approach has been a success. The zones of tolerance in Edinburgh have been abandoned and there is certainly no diminution of prostitution in Glasgow, with three recent particularly nasty murders of prostitutes and the unpleasant statistic advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner. So there is no quick fix, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, said.

I finish by citing material derived from a perceptive paper by Catherine Benson and Roger Matthews in the International Journal of the Sociology of Law in 1995. It gives the crude and unadorned picture of the darker side of the lives of women engaged in street prostitution. The first point was made by several of your Lordships: the majority of women working as prostitutes have economic, social and heath-related problems. That was especially highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. The myth of the "happy hooker" is indeed a myth. Prostitutes almost always suffer from some degree of dependency. The next point is that women who work on the streets are the repeated targets for sexual and violent physical attacks. Twenty-seven per cent of street prostitutes interviewed admitted being raped in the past 12 months. A further 43 per cent had suffered some form of physical assault or abuse. The majority of clients have regular partners or are married. Many kerb-crawlers are middle-aged or middle class.

Significantly, the regulation of prostitution is low-status police work. Police response tends to be reactive rather than proactive, often, largely, to placate local residents. As one vice squad officer explained, "You have got to be seen to be doing something, even if they [the prostitutes] do just go straight back out there. If we didn't, we would be overrun with girls and complaints about them".

Despite growing inequalities over the past 20 years, the number of prostitutes working in the streets in the majority of areas has either remained constant or decreased. The problem will not go away.

The Government are to be commended on the Sexual Offences Bill, in particular. But I shall leave the Minister with two thoughts, both covered by noble Lords who have spoken today. The least society owes those women is to improve their safety—I echo my noble friend Lord Lucas. Society also owes them the provision of every practicable facility for an exit route by providing counselling, rehabilitation and safe houses. I finish by saying what a heart-warming story we heard from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has also referred. With those two thoughts, I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister says.

8.26 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, I add my voice to those of all noble Lords who have thanked my noble friend Lord Faulkner for provoking such a wide-ranging and thoughtful debate. I can only agree with him that the time is right for a sensible debate on the issues arising from prostitution. There has been no such discussion for more than 50 years. Issues arising from prostitution are numerous and complex. One should remember the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, who referred to the comprehensive nature of what has been tried internationally, much of which has failed.

I have rarely heard such a wide-ranging and thoughtful exposition of the history as we had the advantage of hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. It is important, because it emphasised the observation by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, that there is no quick fix. It is a difficult issue that will need a lot of very careful thought. We must consider all the available options, however radical. There are no easy answers, therefore, but that does not mean that it is an issue from which we can afford to shy away.

I, too, was very touched by what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, said. He rightly emphasised the need for compassion and care, but also that there is redemption and possibility of change. Those women who are given a route out of prostitution can make an enormously valuable contribution to our country.

Many who become involved in prostitution do so at a very young age, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, told us. Those children are victims of abuse, pure and simple. We are determined that the law should be sufficiently robust to ensure that we can act swiftly and firmly to stop those predatory individuals who use and abuse young people in that way.

Prostitution also makes victims of women—and indeed a significant number of men—who are exploited by their pimps and abused by their clients. It also makes victims of those communities in which the sex trade takes place on the streets or in neighbouring flats. I was very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, rightly emphasised that aspect of the difficulty. From noble Lords' remarks, it may be said that it was ever thus and that over the past 700 years we have tried virtually every model that there is. However, try we must continue to do. I know that some noble Lords are disappointed that the review on sex offences, which led to the introduction of the Sex Offences Bill, did not fully cover prostitution. I warmly thank the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for his congratulations on what we did do, because we made some important strides forward.

At the time, the sex offences review team considered that the issues surrounding prostitution went much wider than the remit of that law review. However, it was recognised that, although it is important to ensure that the legal framework is right, it is equally important to look at how the law is enforced, and, indeed, to look at other ways of tackling the issue. Enforcement has been at the heart of what we have talked about this evening. This will include preventive strategies to stop young people from being drawn into prostitution, support for those who find themselves involved in it, and a range of measures to deal with the practical impact of prostitution on our communities.

It is also instructive to look at models of good practice from around the country, and indeed from around the world. We have had some clear examples of that tonight, by my noble friend, Lord Faulkner, and from the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman. All in all, it was considered that the issues arising from prostitution were so wide-ranging that they demanded a separate review. I am pleased to say that the Government accepted that recommendation, and we are now acting upon it by scoping the issues for a review dedicated to exploring the problems arising from prostitution. I bear in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Lucus, said about politicians not having the stomach or courage for the task, but I assure noble Lords that this Government do.

The Home Office is leading this scoping exercise, working with an inter-departmental group of officials. The team is also consulting key stakeholders from outside the Government, including the criminal justice agencies, the statutory services, voluntary groups and academics. The team will also ensure that the voices of those with first-hand experience of involvement in prostitution will be heard.

That is not a straightforward process, as noble Lords will appreciate. The issues associated with prostitution are numerous and complex, and we want to make sure that we have explored the issues fully. For that reason I am unable to be specific about the timing of the review, but we will ensure that all those who have been involved with prostitution and the issues that arise from prostitution, have an opportunity to engage in the debate.

We will be interested to hear views on ways of dealing with the issues arising from prostitution both nationally and internationally, through early prevention, through the application of civil and criminal remedies, and through the provision of support for those abused and exploited. We need to open up the debate on the best way to tackle these issues so that we can develop—for the very first time— a national strategy for prostitution.

If I may say so, I think my noble friend was a little unkind in his assessment of the Government's attempt at reform. The new offences in the Sex Offences Bill on trafficking and the sexual exploitation of adults and children should make a significant contribution to protecting those women—and children—involved in prostitution by delivering them justice and protection through the prosecution of their exploiters. We are also bringing forward new powers to deal with anti-social behaviour.

I understand the concern that enforcement of the law should not have unintended effects on the safety of those working on the streets, but we must also act to make our communities safe. The noble Lord referred specifically to the prohibition on carding. It was made an offence in response to considerable concern in communities where carding was common that not only was it distasteful and off-putting to residents and tourists alike but those placing the cards were extremely aggressive. I have seen no evidence that the ban on carding has driven prostitutes on to the street. Nor, in all honesty, would I expect that to be the case, when the advertising of sexual services takes place in the local press and, increasingly, through the Internet. Carding took place only in a limited number of cities.

I wholeheartedly agree that enforcement activity must be balanced with support for the women involved in prostitution. There are many excellent projects around the country doing just that. The Home Office has funded 11 projects to look specifically at what works best as effective exit strategies. Those projects are being evaluated and will provide useful good practice guidance to practitioners. My noble friend suggested that we should also look rather further afield for inspiration. He gave us an instructive whistle-stop tour around the world, from Sweden via Europe to Australia and New Zealand. I found the examination of the situation in Edinburgh and Glasgow particularly instructive, although, of course, I would not necessarily agree with the comment made by the lady in Edinburgh.

In each model one can see advantages and disadvantages. For each model, there are mixed accounts of how well it is succeeding in practice. It is a complex issue, and it is absolutely right that experience elsewhere should be examined in great detail. That forms part of the current scoping exercise. We must consider what kind of strategy is most likely to deliver the objectives that we all want to see: a reduction in the level of violence and exploitation experienced through involvement in prostitution; a reduction in the problems that the trade causes to local communities; and a reduction in the support that the trade inevitably provides for the drugs trade and other forms of organised crime, rightly highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley.

A national strategy for prostitution must address early prevention to safeguard children who may be at risk of abuse through prostitution; protection and support for those drawn into prostitution; and justice through vigorous enforcement of the law against those who coerce, control and abuse those exploited through prostitution and against those who contribute to anti-social behaviour and neighbourhood degradation through activities associated with prostitution.

We are working vigorously on the issue with our international partners. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to the White Paper Secure Borders, Safe Haven. Our response is to take a four-pronged approach to international matters: legislation; enforcement; and international co-operation to aid prevention and support victims. The scale of the problem is still unclear, as no reliable estimates exist. The Home Office research study Stopping Traffic, published in 2000, estimated that anywhere between 140 and 1,400 women were trafficked to the UK every year for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.

I will also chair a ministerial group on sexual offences. It will be part of that group's remit to examine prostitution and trafficking issues. I assure the House that the ministerial team, working cross-departmentally, will put a lot of energy into addressing those important issues. I also understand the health issues, and those matters will continue to be of great importance to us.

House adjourned at twenty-one minutes before nine o'clock.