Imprisonment of Prostitutes (Abolition)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 14th April 1981.

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Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith North 3:35 pm, 14th April 1981

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish the term 'common prostitute' in law; to abolish sentences of imprisonment for soliciting offences; and for connected purposes. Prostitution is said to be the oldest profession in the world. I have always doubted that, because I thought that it vied with politics for that definition. Someone has pointed out to me that the dividing line between the two is not always clear. I am also aware that journalism is the third oldest profession, inasmuch as someone is required to spread the word. I suspect that I should not be introducing the Bill if there were more women in the House.

My Bill does two things. First, it proposes to remove the term "common prostitute" from the 1959 Act. Secondly, it proposes to abolish imprisonment as a sentence, except where fines are not paid, where the normal law applies.

The term "common prostitute" condemns a person before her case has been heard. It was well intentioned in the first instance. The phrase goes back to the Wolfenden committee's inquiries, which many hon. Members will remember better than I do. In effect, the phrase makes conviction more likely, because it means that a woman appearing in court is charged with being a common prostitute before she has pleaded guilty or not guilty to an offence, even though she may never have appeared in court in her life before. The charge is based on the assumption that a woman has been cautioned by the police prior to arrest.

I do not think that there is a similar situation under any other law. For example, if someone is warned about stealing he is not brought to court and charged with being a common thief before being convicted. The offence is unique in that respect. A male prostitute is covered by a different Act, and the term "common prostitute" is not used.

The charge of soliciting—soliciting is the offence; being a prostitute is not an offence—should stand or fall on its merits and not on a person's being described as a common prostitute before she pleads guilty or not guilty.

The purpose of the second part of the Bill is to abolish imprisonment. The reason is that it is not now regarded by many people as an appropriate sentence for soliciting on the streets. To some extent this is demonstrated by the figures. In 1978 only 214 people—214 women—were sentenced to imprisonment. The vast majority are already dealt with by fines, conditional discharges, probation, and so on.

The all-party penal affairs group in Parliament said in its report: We recommend that any nuisance caused by soliciting should be dealt with by legislation dealing with public nuisance generally. No one should normally be convicted of such an offence without evidence having been heard from a person to whom a nuisance has been caused. In saying that, the report puts the emphasis on the person who alleges that a nuisance has been caused. That is important, because it brings out the question of double standards. A woman soliciting for prostitution on the streets will, generally speaking, cause relatively little offence to passers-by. There are exceptions. But a man looking for a prostitute may cause a great deal of offence. He may be kerb crawling, he may be stopping women who are not prostitutes, and so on. But he will not be charged. Even if he were, in extreme circumstances, to be charged with causing a nuisance it is extremely unlikely that he would be sent to prison.

It is, therefore, an exceptional sentence to impose on women in this position. It is interesting to note that the Police Federation, the prison governors, probation officers, social workers, lawyers and the National Council for Civil Liberties all agree that imprisonment is an inappropriate sentence in cases such as this. I can think of no better way to reconcile such diverse groups as the NCCL, the Police Federation, lawyers and others in unity than an issue of this kind.

The double standards between the customer and prostitute need to be borne in mind.

Street prostitutes often solicit for short-term economic gain, to deal with an immediate financial crisis. It might be done in order to pay the, rent or to avoid having the electricity or gas cut off. These are immediate financial crises, and we need to bear in mind that people live in a different world from that of the 1920s and 1930s. People living in a multi-storey block of flats are dependent on electricity or gas for their heating. They can no longer go out and collect wood from a nearby forest, light a fire and keep themselves warm in that way. They either have to pay their electricity and gas bills or go without lighting and heating.

It is obviously, therefore, sometimes a matter of short-term economic gain. In such circumstances people are often caught, because they solicit in the local area, where they are seen, warned and eventually arrested. It is also true that women arrested in such circumstances have multiple social, economic and emotional problems. They are not organised for their soliciting in the way that some people are.

One of the reasons why I have no fears that soliciting for prostitution would dramatically increase if the Bill were to become law is that it is possible to be a prostitute legally and not get into serious trouble. It is possible to see in shop windows advertisements for "French lessons with variations". I am not sure whether the EEC has issued any directives concerning French lessons and what is requited as a minimum standard. I am sure that if we were to carry out research in that respect: we might find one or two surprises.

Children are taken into care when a mother who is a single person is sent to prison for this offence. That, again, is not a desirable step.

My Bill sets a fine of up to £25 for a first offence and £50 for a second offence. The reasons for that are obvious. At the very least, the danger is that the women will pay the fine out of money that would otherwise be used to pay the rent, the electricity bill or the gas bill. At the very worst, she will simply go out and solicit again in order to pay the bill. I remember a case in which a woman told me that she had increased her price. When customers complained she said "You roust blame the magistrate".

My proposals will not only help the Treasury Bench to keep down inflation; they will keep people out of prison and cut public expenditure. Indeed, rumour has it that the Ministers on the Treasury Bench are fighting each other in order to get the Bill made law before the end of the Session. I urge the hon. Members to vote for the Bill today, for reasons of natural justice and for the welfare of the community as a whole.