Sexual Offences (Amendment)
John Mann (Bassetlaw, Labour)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to create an offence of paying for sexual services of a person under the age of 21 years;
and for connected purposes.
In talking about this subject, I shall turn directly to the issue of drugs, on which I have frequently spoken before in the House. It is a key issue in respect of the problem the Bill addresses, and I think the Bill will have a positive impact.
Legislation has many purposes, one of which is to change people’s behaviour. Many previous Governments have passed far too much criminal justice legislation that attempts to send messages and give signals to society. This Bill does not attempt to do that; rather, it attempts to change behaviour, which is a far more effective strategy.
There are three main ways in which teenagers, both boys and girls, get drawn into prostitution; one of them is trafficking. The Bill does not deal with that topic in detail, but it has been well aired in this House in recent times. As a result, there has been a flurry of legislation, but it needs to be used far more effectively—both the Government and the police must deliver.
This Bill’s measures would not have a major impact on trafficking, and they should not be considered as an answer to that problem. Instead, they should be seen merely as a minor assist. Trafficking is, however, one way in which teenagers get cajoled into prostitution.
Abuse and drugs are far more significant factors, however, especially with younger teenagers, and the Bill will make a greater impact in dealing with them. Those two factors—sometimes in combination—tend to lead to the dysfunctional behaviour of 16, 17 and 18-year-olds entering the world of prostitution. Sometimes that happens through coercion and sometimes it happens through desperation, although an element of both is often involved.
I wish to start by discussing the issue of abuse. Until the previous general election, I was the Member of Parliament representing Rampton, the largest secure hospital for women—the only secure hospital for women—in this country. I have visited it and talked to staff on numerous occasions, so I am aware that one incredible reality of the women there is that, of course, they are there because they acted in hugely abnormal and horrific ways, and they will often be there for life, but all the evidence suggests that they were abused as children. That is a fact and a reality; it is not an excuse.
In my work on tackling drugs—for better or for worse I have conducted a huge amount of field research, both with organisations and with constituents—I have found that, without question, 16, 17 and 18-year-olds who are getting addicted to drugs are doing so because of major trauma in their lives. A range of major traumas is involved, but the correlation we should always look at first is with abuse as a teenager, be it psychological, physical or sexual. The use of sex becomes a way of generating income within the drug community. It tends initially to be a way of buying or trading drugs, which
becomes endemic and then spreads to become a way of obtaining cash, through sex with strangers; this predominantly affects women, but it also affects young boys, too. The problem for the 16, 17 and 18-year-olds who find prostitution to be an easier route to quick money than burglary or robbery and to be more profitable than the easier option of shoplifting is that this dysfunctional activity then traps the addict, much more so than those other behaviours, in a way of life that they cannot get out of.
I am not here to make a moral speech about prostitution. There is an important debate to be held on the rights and wrongs of prostitution and the laws that should have an impact on it, by my Bill does not deal with that. My Bill does one thing: it raises the threshold for the illegality of paying for sex. Of course there is a threshold, which is currently 16. Where someone is under 16, the huge consequences of the criminal law and imprisonment are involved because of the age of consent. But the moment the victim becomes older than 16 there are no punitive powers to deal with the person who is paying. I wish to see this Bill adopted by the Government at some stage solely and simply to raise that threshold, because by raising the threshold one raises the threshold. That may sound like a truism, but this approach will change the behaviour of those choosing to pay. The behavioural implication is there for those worried about breaching the criminal law and risking 14 years in prison because someone could be a minor of 15 and a half years old. On that borderline, threshold behaviour changes, so I would like Parliament to change that threshold to 21. In essence, that will take all the teenage years out of the real threshold and will change the behaviour of people who are paying. I am not making moral judgments about what people do as adults.
My Bill seeks solely and simply to raise that threshold. I think that raising the threshold will have a huge impact because the age group involved—older teenagers—must be given the space in which to turn around their lives. Our current legislative framework makes them the victims as, in reality, the powers available to the police, even though they are often wisely and deliberately not used, are to arrest and criminalise young people, which worsens their life chances and their chances of turning around the situation.
Explicitly changing the threshold, as well as changing the behaviour of those who are paying, will create space to allow the various agencies to work and turn around the situation for those 16, 17, 18 and 19-year-olds. That situation can then be transformed, particularly for those who have a drug dependency or who have suffered abuse. Such input, as they develop into adults, will make a defining difference in many cases. We have all seen the kinds of people who are the victims in our constituencies; we all know that they can be anyone and that they can be concentrated in areas where there are particular problems. The correlation to major trauma, however, and to abuse and the provision of the support and ability to impact on those young kids—that is what those boys and girls are—are wholly missing from the process.
I propose this Bill as a small contribution that, for some of them, would have a significant impact. It would raise the threshold for those who choose to pay and remove a reasonable number of those teenagers from the industry, creating space so the agencies who wish to work with them can do so positively and allow them to turn around their lives.