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Soliciting a Woman for Sexual Purposes in a Manner Causing Nuisance or Fear

Part of Orders of the Day — Sexual Offences Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 10th May 1985.

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Photo of Mr Ernest Roberts Mr Ernest Roberts , Hackney North and Stoke Newington 12:30 pm, 10th May 1985

The argument would not have been as great and as difficult as it is if the Bill had dealt wholly and solely with the problem of kerb crawling and had not tried to deal with the problem of prostitution which is known as the oldest profession. The difficulties that we are debating have arisen because the Bill seeks to deal with prostitution generally.

No Bill will be able to solve the so-called problem of prostitution and no Bill should attempt to do so. We are dealing with nothing less than the freedom of the individual and consenting parties. The right of a person to sell his or her services under the pressure of poverty, unemployment or any other economic circumstances is one of the freedoms of the individual.

The new clause and the amendments have been tabled to protect the innocent and to enable persons to go about their legal and legitimate activities without being caused offence by others. The act of prostitution, which is illicit sex, is not in itself a criminal act.

My constituency includes Brownswood in the Finsbury Park area, which probably has a worse kerb crawling and prostitution problem than any other area in Britain. That has been so for some years. Barriers have been put across many roads so that kerb crawlers cannot crawl, but that has not got rid of prostitution on the streets or stopped soliciting. Kerb crawlers get out of their cars and walk. The more barriers that are erected the more that kerb crawlers are pushed out of the area, but the problem of prostitution continues.

I shall refer to the evidence of the vice unit which has been operating from Stoke Newington police station. I invited the chief superintendent in charge of the unit and one of his fellow officers to attend a debate, which they did. The chief superintendent had prepared a report that drew comparisons based on the 1984 figures. He reported that there had been a 70 per cent. reduction in the number of prostitutes cautioned and a 40 per cent. reduction in the numbers arrested. In 1984, about 120 women were involved in cautions and arrests. Over 400 kerb crawlers were cautioned and 17 were convicted. A number of ponces and controllers of brothels were arrested and convicted and 10 persons were still awaiting trial for conspiring to control prostitution. The reduction in cautions and arrests has been the result of the policy of the police to keep their officers on the roads and to let them be seen—in other words, the policeman on the beat, who is being asked for almost continually. The policy is to deter by way of the presence of police officers rather than spend time in the police station processing offenders.

It is clear that the police are using existing powers to deal with problems. The Law Society says that section 5 of the Public Order Act 1936 was used to deal with the problem of threatening behaviour which arises out of soliciting and that the law of common assault has been used and can he used.

My constituents and Hackney borough council have discussed the matter. They want action taken to deal with kerb crawling but they do not want prostitutes to be victimised. The problem of prostitution has been with us for centuries and it will not be solved by this Bill. Prostitutes have put forward their experiences. They say that the police arrest women whenever they please whether the woman is working or not, possibly because police evidence only is required. No jury trial is available for offences of loitering or soliciting, and magistrates rubber-stamp police stories. They believe that the same will happen with kerb crawling in cases involving black and other, working-class, men. It is difficult to obtain legal aid because the offences of loitering and soliciting are not punishable by imprisonment. They believe that the same would apply to kerb crawling. Working-class people would therefore suffer the most.

Some prostitutes are arrested by the police whenever they are seen. They feel that men convicted of kerb crawling will be treated in the same way, and that because most red light areas are working-class, black and other working-class men will be convicted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) has left the Chamber, but in relation to police action against kerb crawlers, Wandsworth council has said: What the police have been doing, with some measure of success, is to identify the driver who persistently cruises around the area by his car number plate and subsequently invite him to attend the local police station to 'discuss his presence in the area'. That has had an effect upon kerb crawlers.

I am disturbed by a case on 17 May in Bristol which was brought to my attention. A person was entrapped by police action. Two policewomen in plain clothes gave evidence that a man solicited them for sexual purposes. He denied that emphatically. It became a matter of the word of one of the policewomen as to what he said against his. That case is typical of other cases where a policewoman's word is taken against that of a motorist. In that case an innocent motorist was convicted and fined £100.

The National Association of Probation Officers discussed the matter at its conference. Its members have considerable experience of the problem. The conference resolved to resist any legislation seeking to control kerb crawling by the creation of new offences within the criminal law. That resolution was carried by 445 votes to 282. We should take note of it. It shows that there is considerable opposition to action being taken against prostitutes under this so-called kerb crawling Bill.

There is anxiety about kerb crawlers in my constituency, but there is also anxiety about the prosecution and persecution of innocent people. Many black people and ethnic minorities live in and around my constituency. They remember their experiences under the sus law. They are worried. They continually complain to me about the way that they are treated by the police. There will be further aggravations. I can envisage a considerable number of problems coming my way as the police are given new powers to pick up people as a result of what is called kerb crawling.

We cannot rely on the evidence of a policeman or policewoman alone. There must be a victim who is prepared to give evidence. Without that evidence, the risks that would be taken would be far too great. The Bill would cause more problems than it would cure. Unless it is amended, it should be opposed.