Clause 71

Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:30 am ar 27 Tachwedd 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Amendment to offence of loitering etc. for purposes of prostitution

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I beg to move amendment No. 351, in clause 71, page 49, line 21, after ‘person’, insert ‘aged 18 or over’.

Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I welcome you to the Committee this morning. The name of my constituency seems to defeat even the most erudite Members of the House. Despite the overcast conditions outside, I am sure that your chairmanship will brighten our proceedings.

In an attempt to enliven our discussions, we now move on to the subject of prostitution. The amendment, which is in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, deals with people under the age 18 who are working as prostitutes. I hope that a lot of our debate on this aspect of the Bill will be about prostitutes as not so much offenders, but people who are exploited and the victims of others. I also hope that we shall explore people trafficking, a subject in which the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department is very much engaged, as am I and others. We shall want to see how to mitigate the awful consequences of trafficking.

In the case of under-18s, we are dealing not only with people who might be from other countries and fall into the category of trafficked people, but those who are indigenous to this country and vulnerable to exploitation, whether or not they know that they are being exploited. The amendment would decriminalise the offence of  loitering or soliciting for persons aged 17 and under. There is consistency between my proposal and what happens in practice. There are many fewer prosecutions of young people for prostitution offences than there were previously, and part of that is due to a change of attitude on the part of the authorities that seek to understand the behaviour of young people and to attack the reasons for their offending behaviour.

We are all conscious of the fact that many young people who find themselves in the world of prostitution do so because they come from a significantly difficult social background. A lot of them come from children’s homes. Unfortunately, it is a huge indictment of our system that so many young people from children’s homes are engaged in prostitution. Many others come from chaotic or disorderly home backgrounds and regard it as an escape.

Let me refer to the numbers of young people involved in loitering for prostitution purposes. In 2005-06, Barnardo’s worked with 2,148 young people between the ages of 18 and 24. Research that it undertook in 2005 showed that as many as 1,000 young children in London alone were at risk of, or involved in, exploitation. That can take many forms, but it often includes prostitution.

The question for the Committee is whether prosecuting a young person for this offence is the right way of dealing with them in the first instance, rather than using the other possible disposals available, and whether that is likely to have the right consequence of deterring reoffending. All the evidence shows that it is not. There is also a question about whether young people will recognise that the authorities are trying to assist them if the threat of prosecution is hanging over them, or whether they will be alienated further from those who can provide genuine assistance and remove them from the exploitative situation in which they find themselves. We must also recognise the vulnerability of young people in this context and that to call them offenders and bring them before a court is probably not the best outcome, either for the child or for the system that is being used. Rather, more caring and long-term support is needed.

If we do not remove the possibility of prosecution for young people, they will be persistent offenders. However the crime is defined, all the evidence indicates that they will not be single-time offenders, but will appear before the courts time and time again. They will eventually find themselves in more and more serious difficulties as a result. Removing that possibility is the principal objective of the amendment. The amendment is supported by the Standing Committee for Youth Justice and, particularly, by Barnardo’s, which often works with such young people, as well as the Children’s Society, and I commend it to the Committee.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

Welcome back, Sir Nicholas. I look forward to the proceedings of the Committee and our deliberations. The issue of street offences is no doubt serious and important. It is right to focus by way of the amendment on concerns about under-18s. Those concerns will be reflected during our debate on a number of amendments and clauses. There is focus on dealing with those who are vulnerable and exploited, and I particularly welcome the intentions behind the amendment.

I invite the Minister to respond to a concern that we all share about dealing with what is out there and happening in practice. It is accepted that clause 71 seeks  to address the practice of persistent prostitution and to focus the criminality on persistence. I understand that current practice is that after the police have issued two cautions to those involved in prostitution, they would seek to prosecute. The concern to divert prostitutes away from their practice and trade is reflected in the other clauses that we will deal with when we examine the issue of rehabilitation. The issue raised by the amendment is whether clause 71, as it stands, will deal with the most vulnerable and most exploited. The amendment goes to the heart of that issue. There are reports that 85 per cent. of street-based prostitutes report physical abuse in the family and that 45 per cent. report familial sexual abuse. Those reported statistics are no doubt aggravated by age. Those who are under 18, by the nature of their age, are prone to exploitation and abuse. While we are all concerned to focus on how we can reduce trafficking into prostitution, plainly that issue is all the more important when dealing with those who are under 18. I therefore look forward to hearing the Minister justify clause 71 in relation to an over-18 threshold.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

Sir Nicholas, it is a delight to be on my feet for the first time after sitting through some very interesting discussions and debates. I also welcome you and your co-Chairman, Mr. O’Hara, to the Chair, and welcome all hon. Members to the Committee. I shall endeavour to answer questions to the best of my ability, and I apologise in advance if people feel that I do not do that.

This is a very important aspect of the Bill, and I take very much to heart the call made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that I consider the matter carefully. We are trying to set out a way of dealing with this issue that is sensitive to the needs of street workers as well as to the need to maintain a sense of law and order in some parts of our community. It is that balance that we seek to strike.

I will deal with some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate during the clause stand part debate. Again, he made a very important point about the need for us to consider carefully how we protect young people in respect of this measure.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is right to point out the huge and welcome decrease in official cautions and prosecutions against under-18s in this area. It reflects a change in our view about how we deal with this particular issue and highlights the need for rehabilitation rather than prosecution.

The amendment would amend the offence of loitering or soliciting for the purposes of prostitution to exclude those under the age of 18. I have to say that I have some sympathy with that proposal. We certainly do not want children and young people to be unnecessarily criminalised. I am reassured—and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be as well—that since the publication in 2000 of the guidance “Safeguarding Children Involved in Prostitution”, the numbers arrested and prosecuted are extremely low. In 2005, there were two cautions and one prosecution. Our guidance makes it clear that the criminal law should be used only when, following inter-agency discussions, it is considered that a young person has persistently and  voluntarily continued to loiter or solicit in a public place for the purposes of prostitution. Therefore, in practice, the offence is rarely used with regard to under-18s.

I recognise that criminal sanctions, even as a last resort, do not rest comfortably with the concept that children involved in prostitution are always the victims of abuse. Nevertheless, I have some concerns about the potential impact of removing under-18s from the scope of the offence. There is a risk that such a move could be misrepresented or misinterpreted as the Government condoning the involvement of under-18s in such activity. In turn, that could result in an increase in the numbers of children and young people groomed for that kind of exploitation. No one would wish to see that. Any move in that direction would need to be balanced with the message that child sexual exploitation—the majority of which takes place off-street—is still a serious crime, but that the criminal law focuses on those perpetrating that crime, either by paying for the sexual services of a child, or by controlling, facilitating or inciting child prostitution.

We already have the legislative tools to deal with those who sexually exploit children and we must continue to ensure that they are being used to the full effect. Therefore, before we change the legal position, I want to be confident that we can match that with a clear message that child sexual exploitation is a grave crime that will not be tolerated, and that the child is always a victim.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am happy to reflect on the matter further in the light of the comments that have been made this morning. However, I cannot offer any commitment. We have to balance the message and the need to protect children, although I understand his point. I will consider whether, later in the Bill’s passage through this place and perhaps another place, there is a need to change the law. In the light of that, will the hon. Gentleman consider withdrawing his amendment?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 10:45, 27 Tachwedd 2007

I thank the Minister, and welcome him to a speaking part in our proceedings. He and I have had a few sedentary conversations during the course of the proceedings, but this is the first time that he has had the opportunity to strut his stuff.

I welcome the sensible way in which the hon. Gentleman has approached this issue, as is normally the case. However, I simply do not buy the constant refrain that, somehow, changes in the criminal law and in our statute are made for the purpose of sending messages. We do not send messages by having laws or making changes in laws that are inappropriate. The focus of our concern, quite properly, is the exploitation of young people. We have rightly created offences in that respect, and we want them to be used to the greatest possible extent to reduce this type of offending. We want our investigative and prosecuting authorities to do everything within their power to ensure that people who exploit children for sexual purposes are arrested, prosecuted, and given get the appropriate punishment.

That goes without saying, so what we are talking about is whether the provision for the criminalisation of young people in this respect is a vestigial provision. I  think that the Minister has answered that question by giving the numbers involved: two cautions and one prosecution, I think he said. In the context of the modern approach to these matters, the offence is no longer necessary or useful—that is shown by the figures. Having recognised that fact, we as legislators should remove from the statute book a measure that is no longer sensible or useful. The message, if one was being sent, was being sent before that, precisely as he said, in the treatment of young people for sexual offences, and the guidance that has been given. That is the message: it is guidance that gives the message, and law that states the offence. In my view, there is not an offence in this instance: that is shown by the figures and by the principles that the Minister has outlined.

The Minister says that he will consider my proposal, and I really do hope that he does, because it would be a small but significant step forward in the law. I hope that he will put aside the consideration that he might be accused of somehow being soft on child sexual exploitation or something like that. In the context of the Bill, it would be absurd to keep a law in place simply because somebody might misconstrue its removal. I think that that was the only real argument that he used to suggest that the measure should be retained. In the light of what he said, I am very happy for him to consider the matter further, and I hope that we will come back to the subject on Report in this House. If we do not, I suspect that the job will be done in another place, whether he likes it or not. Such is the way of these things, but I think that it would be better if the House of Commons dealt with it and determined that this offence no longer has its place on our statute book. On the basis that I reserve the right to bring it back at a later stage if we are not satisfied that the matter has been properly dealt with, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 71 ordered to stand part of the Bill.