Orders of the Day — Sexual Offences Bill

– in the House of Commons at 9:36 am on 16th February 1990.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham 9:37 am, 16th February 1990

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill has two main purposes. The first is to make life more difficult for kerb crawlers, and I shall explain how I propose that should be done. The second is to remove the present legal presumption that boys under 14 are incapable of sexual intercourse. For some time the Home Office has been concerned about the matter and I am glad to be able to include it in my Bill. I should like to thank the Home Office and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for their help and co-operation.

In an Adjournment speech last year I said: Over the past few years, a plague—a pollution—has struck a part of my constituency. Certain streets have become red light areas. At night, they swarm with prostitutes. I accept that that is not unique to Streatham, although it is unique to the residents there."—[Official Report, 12 January 1989; Vol. 144 c. 1092.] The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who is present, is also worried about the matter. I am glad that he managed to return from Belgium yesterday. I know he was there because I have been unable to pair with him for the past two days.

The problem is a plague and a pollution, but in a recent survey in the press that asked the public to list in order of importance the crimes that most trouble them, prostitution and kerb crawling came low on that list. I understand that because that crime and nuisance affects only small areas, but if one questioned the residents in those areas they would put that problem top of their list. People not affected by the problem have no conception of the distress caused. For those living in the affected areas it is a plague and a horror. Their wives or daughters are solicited as they return from the bus stop. Life is most unpleasant for them.

Last year a traffic count was taken in a quiet, tree-lined residential road in my constituency. Between 5 pm and 6 pm, rush hour, 12 cars passed along the street, but between midnight and 1 am, 124 cars were clocked going along it. Imagine trying to sleep, especially in the summer with the windows open. Constituents and friends have told me that in the summer they must move from their main bedrooms in the front of the house to one of the bedrooms in the back, or they must keep their bedroom windows closed.

Photo of Mr David Martin Mr David Martin , Portsmouth South

The Sexual Offences Act 1985 was introduced to deal with problems just as great as those described by my hon. Friend. As it appears that problems remain as bad as they were, has that Act had no effect?

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

My hon. Friend has put his finger on it. When I was fortunate to win a high place in the ballot for private members' Bills I decided to introduce this Bill because of that failure.

A local resident has described the problem in the following terms: The noise is endless as the cars screech around the roads, viewing the prostitutes as they stand on the corners. The noise of the prostitutes screaming among themselves or at their clients. The pimps and their cars; the harassment of residents as they walk down their own streets. It is intolerable that that should happen.

I was contacted by a constituent who was deeply distressed when his small son wandered in one morning, having popped outside to look around, carrying an empty hypodermic syringe that he had picked up behind the bushes of his garden. If that boy had pricked himself with the syringe the family would have been deeply worried because there is a high incidence of hepatitis B among prostitutes and even some cases of AIDS.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn Sir Nicholas Fairbairn , Perth and Kinross

As one who normally lives in the quiet countryside of Scotland, but who must live in London during the week, I persistently have difficulty sleeping because of motor cars. Whether they are after prostitutes or not makes no difference to my disturbance. Why should the ordinary citizen living in a town be capable of distinguishing between a motor car that is kerb crawling and a motor car that is not? To make an improper suggestion, of whatever form, to someone who is not a prostitute, even, "Go to hell", or, "I don't like the look of your face", is an offence known to the law of Scotland. Is it not known to the common law of England?

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I reassure my hon. and learned Friend that the Bill does not apply to Scotland, but to England and Wales. It does not relate to the tranquility of Scotland. I accept that all traffic is a nuisance, but the average motorist does not leave empty hypodermic syringes in one's garden.

Various things have been done in Streatham recently to rid the area of the problem. In April 1988 a vice squad was formed and, possibly because of my Adjournment debate, the squad now has its own van rather than having to rely upon the general purpose police van. In 1987, 239 prostitutes were prosecuted; in 1988 the figure rose to 803. However, in 1988 only 180 kerb crawlers were summonsed under the Sexual Offences Act 1985—it is not an arrestable offence. The police, as in other areas, send letters to people seen circling around. Any kerb crawlers who happen to read this debate should note that they may find a surprising letter on the breakfast table one morning. Yet still the kerb crawlers come back.

I have great praise for the police, but the vice squad consists of only six officers. I was surprised to learn that in Wandsworth, next door to my constituency, where the problem is less acute there are 12 officers in the vice squad. I intend to raise this with my right hon. Friend the Minister and with the helpful deputy assistant commissioner, Mr. Metcalfe, whom I shall meet in a few weeks' time.

A traffic management scheme was eventually introduced by Lambeth council it took three years to introduce it. Although it is a nuisance to residents to drive round and round to reach the main road, it has helped and the traffic flow has been reduced in some areas. Is it not absurd, however, that money must be spent and residents incommoded as roads are blocked off just to stop the problem? I am also told by the police that a new kerb crawling route has developed on the other side of the High road. Although the traffic management scheme is good, it does not represent a solution as kerb crawlers still come back. Hon. Members must accept that this is a grave problem and that something must be done to solve it. The House has a responsibility towards our citizens.

Photo of Mr David Martin Mr David Martin , Portsmouth South

Does my hon. Friend believe that reducing the requirements of the law by repealing the words "persistently" and in such a manner or in such circumstances as to be likely to cause annoyance to the woman (or any of the women) solicited, or nuisance to other persons in the neighbourhood is sufficient to make a significant difference to the law?

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

Yes. There are other actions that could be taken which, for reasons that I shall explain, are not included in the Bill.

The House will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) also won a high place in the ballot in 1985 and introduced the Sexual Offences Act 1985, which was earlier known as the "Kerb Crawlers Bill". It was the first time that kerb crawling was made a criminal offence. The Bill's intention was to make it an offence to solicit a woman from a motor vehicle or in the immediate vicinity of the motor vehicle belonging to the man soliciting a woman. However, in Committee in the other place, the Bill suffered some amendments, one of which was the inclusion of the word "persistently", which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir Nicholas Fairbairn) mentioned. It became an offence for which one could be summonsed for a kerb crawler persistently to solicit a woman or more than one woman. A man had to solicit "persistently", or it was not an offence.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn Sir Nicholas Fairbairn , Perth and Kinross

I appreciate that the Bill does not apply to Scotland, but I should like an answer to the question that I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) at the time of her Bill. Surely to go up to a woman who is not a prostitute and to proposition her is an offence in common law. It is an assault. To go up to a woman who is a prostitute and to proposition her is not, I presume, an offence in English common law. Why should it be an offence to do so from a motor car when it is not while standing on the pavement? If it is not an offence under English common law to go up to an ordinary woman and proposition her, there is something odd about the common law in England.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I am coming to that point in a moment. It is indeed an offence in England and, no doubt, in Wales for a man on foot to solicit a woman persistently. The difference, as I shall explain to my hon. and learned Friend, is that the soliciting from a motor car should not have to be persistent, because a motor car is a nuisance at I am if it is driving round and round, especially when the driver honks its horn and flashes its lights and people shout to and from it. That nuisance element does not exist when a man is walking along the street, except that he creates a nuisance to the women whom he persistently solicits.

The inclusion of the word "persistently" for kerb crawlers has made the 1985 Act almost ineffective in summonsing and stopping kerb crawlers. Under the present law, the police can stop a kerb crawler after he has solicited a woman. He can say, "Yes, I am a kerb crawler and I did solicit that woman, but I did not annoy her, I created no nuisance and I solicited her only once". The police would be unable to do anything about that under the present law. Both the police and the Crown prosecution service say that the present kerb crawling offence cannot readily be enforced. The reason is that, theoretically, two separate approaches by the kerb crawler, either to the same woman or to two different women, are required to establish persistence. However, It is likely in practice that a prosecution will succeed only if three or four approaches have been noted by the police. In acute areas, such as in my constituency, it is unusual for more than one approach to be needed. The House must accept that it is difficult for the police successfully to follow a motorist undetected while he makes several approaches.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn Sir Nicholas Fairbairn , Perth and Kinross

The 1985 Act says "persistently" or so as to "cause annoyance" or "nuisance". One approach which causes annoyance or nuisance does not require persistence. My hon. Friend has not understood the words of the Act. Under the Act, if a person goes up to a woman and causes her annoyance or nuisance, he has committed an offence whether he does so once or more than once.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

If my hon. and learned Friend, whose interest in the Act I appreciate, reads Hansard tomorrow, he will understand that I said that if a kerb crawler is stopped by the police and says, "Yes, I am a kerb crawler; I solicited this woman only once and I did not cause her nuisance nor annoyance", he cannot be arrested. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend will agree that I am right.

Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Norwood

The real problem in Streatham—we share a common boundary—is not whether offence is given to prostitutes or to other women walking along the street but that the offence and nuisance is caused to people who live there. Whether there is nuisance for the contracting parties is not the point. The problems are the condoms, the noise and the hypodermic syringes. That is the nub of the matter and we want to get rid of those problems.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

The hon. Gentleman is right and that is what I have been saying. It is the presence of the motor car that makes the kerb crawler distinct from the pedestrian. That is why I want to take the word "persistently" out of the legislation on kerb crawlers.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross mentioned the woman who is not a prostitute. Great nuisance can be involved for her. As I said, wives and daughters are solicited. The woman who is not a prostitute is usually very reluctant to come forward and would usually have difficulty identifying the driver. Unless the police are to hand, the offence goes unreported and the kerb crawler goes unpunished.

As a result of the wretched word "persistently", the police have had to fall hack on showing that kerb crawlers, under another section of the 1985 Act, are causing a nuisance to others in the neighbourhood by soliciting.

In Streatham, the police had to ask residents to note the number plates of cars that circled round. Those were reported to the police, on a special telephone number and the police would note down the registration numbers. When a particular driver stopped to solicit a woman, even if only once, the police could secure a conviction on the ground that he was causing a nuisance to the neighbourhood in pursuit of soliciting. What a way for people to spend the evening! They had to sit in their homes, peering through the windows and noting down car number plates as cars passed. That is nonsense. However, they secured prosecutions and I congratulate them.

There was a recent case in Nottingham where the police, from a vantage point, noted the number plates of cars going round and round. When a car stopped for the driver to solicit a prostitute, the driver was summonsed. The police there secured some convictions in that way, but it is an uncertain way to secure convictions and it is enormously time-consuming for the police.

The consequence of the flaw in the 1985 Act is that in 1988, just under 10,000 women—9,183—were prosecuted for soliciting, with 8,829 convictions. In the same year, there were 578 prosecutions for kerb crawling and 521 convictions. There is clearly an imbalance between the number of prosecutions of women offenders and men offenders. The Act is not doing what it was meant to do—redress the imbalance created by the fact that the prostitute was criminalised while the client got off scot-free. I am quoting from an article in The Independent of 9 February.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn Sir Nicholas Fairbairn , Perth and Kinross

I am most obliged to my hon. Friend, whom I am trying to assist. My hon. Friend's Bill would remove from the 1985 Act the words in a street or public place while in the vicinity of a motor vehicle … cause annoyance to the woman … or nuisance to other persons in the neighbourhood. The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) pointed out that that is the gravamen of the nuisance. The words that my hon. Friend would remove already constitute an offence under the 1985 Act—the very offence of which he complains: nuisance to the residents.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I am grateful for my hon. and learned Friend's help in this matter, but perhaps he has not followed what I was saying. Because the police could not arrest kerb crawlers for soliciting, they had to fall back on a cumbersome procedure which entailed dozens of residents sitting up until 2 am noting down number plates. I cannot believe that even my hon. and learned Friend would think that a good way in which to implement the law, when it can be perfectly satisfactorily implemented by arresting kerb crawlers—without getting hundreds of residents to ring up the police to complain of nuisance at 1 o'clock in the morning. This is only common sense.

Photo of John Maples John Maples , Lewisham West

Does my hon. Friend agree that the legalistic hair-splitting of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) has merely demonstrated the need to simplify this offence?

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I entirely agree. My hon. and learned Friend raised more or less the same objections on Second Reading of the 1985 Act, but I quite understand his seriousness and his purpose.

As I was saying, the Act does not redress the imbalance which leads to the criminalising of the prostitute yet lets the client off scot-free. I understand that prostitutes do not have to solicit persistently: they can be charged after just one solicitation. So the word "persistently" applies not to the prostitute but to the kerb crawler, which is why about 8,000 or 9,000 prostitutes were prosecuted in 1988, but fewer than 600 kerb crawlers were. That is unfair.

Clause 1 would amend the 1985 Act to remove the word "persistently" as it applies to prostitutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Drake has written me a letter apologising that she cannot be here today because of urgent engagements in her constituency. She has asked me to tell the House that she is delighted with the terms of the Bill. It has her full support and she regrets the watering down of her original proposals in Committee.

Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Norwood

I support the change in the law because I know of the problem in Streatham. But there is sometimes a difficulty. When these cases are brought in the magistrates court the prostitutes are never called as witnesses. The only witnesses are police officers. The problem is how to deal with a case brought against a person who may vehemently protest his innocence of having, as a police officer may say, propositioned a prostitute on one occasion—but there is no proof that the woman was a prostitute. She is not called as a witness, yet the man's entire reputation can be destroyed. That has happened to judges in Nottingham and London, and it is one difficulty inherent in striking the right balance.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I entirely agree. I hope to persuade the House on this matter when I come to it in more detail later. But in motoring offences, it is also the word of the police against that of the driver. If prostitutes could be present in court, they would be; but I cannot believe that they would turn up and give evidence in court. In any case they would probably deny that the man being charged had been soliciting.

Photo of Mr David Martin Mr David Martin , Portsmouth South

There may be a similarity with driving offences, but this offence is much more serious for a man's reputation. It would certainly be taken more seriously by newspapers than if a man were charged merely with a motoring offence.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I agree. I was merely pointing out that for a number of offences it is the police officer's word against that of the defendant.

The change suggested in my Bill and in the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Drake is exactly that recommended by the Criminal Law Revision Committee in its 16th report, published in 1984. I think that the House would recognise the eminence of those who served on the committee. Paragraph 40 states: We now recommend that it should be an offence for a man to use a motor vehicle in a street or public place for the purpose of soliciting a woman for prostitution. The object of the offence is to stop the man who goes out in a vehicle to look for a prostitute. Nowhere does the report mention the word "persistently". Straightforward solicitation is the offence.

I have read the Official Report of the proceedings on the 1985 Act and I appreciate the anxieties expressed about the proposals to remove "persistently". They were expressed in 1985 and have been expressed again since. Some hon. Members may have received a letter from the Campaign Against Kerb Crawling Legislation, which claims that such legislation infringes civil rights. The letter was sent to me by a QC, and the campaign is apparently made up of anti-rape, black and civil rights organisations, and of probation officers, solicitors and trade unionists. I believe that it was started by the prostitutes collective.

I dismiss the suggestion that my Bill in any way infringes civil rights. In so far as they are involved, they are rights of my constituents to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of their homes from evening to dawn—rights that they are being denied now.

It might be argued that if a single offence rendered a kerb crawler liable to prosecution it might be easy for the police to frame someone, but if they wanted to do that, they could do so under the present law, claiming that they had seen a person solicit twice. I do not believe, in any case, that the police would ever do anything like that. I hear my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross laughing. Perhaps he thinks that the police frame people. As I said, if they wanted to do that they could do it under the present legislation just as well as under my Bill.

It might also be suggested that the police could act as agents provocateurs. However, that would be in direct contravention of the police standing orders. If the police wanted to do that, again they could do so under the present legislation just as easily as under the legislation that I propose. I dismiss that argument, too.

Hon. Members have also raised the objection that the provisions would make it easier for the police to make a mistake because they might summons someone who merely stopped to ask the way. It is not impossible that someone might stop twice to ask the way, in which case that person could be prosecuted under the present legislation. I take this objection seriously because it is the nub of the argument. I have discussed the matter with the police and with the Home Office. When I pressed the police on this point, they told me that kerb crawlers are easily recognisable. They flash lights, sound horns, chat to prostitutes and open their car doors. The police usually do not stop them until the girl gets into the car. They are absolutely sure that they would give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who claimed that he had stopped to ask the way. In any case, if someone stopped to ask the way and the police came up and said, "Look here, sir, what are you doing", that person would say, "Well, I am going to such and such a place". There is no reason why the police could not go to that place to determine whether he was expected.

Photo of Mr Stuart Randall Mr Stuart Randall , Kingston upon Hull West

I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. As legislators, should we not ensure that there is no opportunity for error, mistake or misjudgment by the police by framing the legislation in such a way that the courts can always ensure that somebody will not be convicted wrongly? Is that not what we should be doing, rather than relying on the discretion of the police?

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If I can continue my speech, perhaps I shall be able to reassure him a little more.

Photo of Mr Toby Jessel Mr Toby Jessel , Twickenham

Although my hon. Friend has just said that he wishes to continue his speech, does he agree that it is relevant not merely that the police might or might not give a suspected person the benefit of the doubt hut, more importantly, that a court would do so? A court has a duty to acquit unless it is satisfied about the guilt of the accused person beyond all reasonable doubt. The sort of case to which my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have alluded in the past few minutes would bring that consideration into play. does my hon. Friend agree that that is the answer?

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

Yes, exactly. My hon. Friend has pre-empted me. I was just about to say that.

When the Sexual Offences Act 1985 was discussed, the Crown prosecution service was not in existence. However, we now have an independent Crown prosecution service which would never—or which would be extremely loth to—summons and prosecute a person about whom there was any doubt. The fact that the Crown prosecution service was not in being in 1985 was one reason given by those who spoke in the various committees as to why the word "persistently" should be included.

As the Crown prosecution service now exists, I ask the House to remember, as my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jesse') said, that the prosecution must show beyond all reasonable doubt that a man was soliciting for the purpose of prostitution. Therefore, it is not a matter of police discretion. That is merely the initial barrier. Two other barriers must be passed. The first is the independent Crown prosecution service and the other is the court itself where, I repeat, the man has to be shown to be soliciting for purposes of prostitution beyond all reasonable doubt. That reassures me completely and I very much hope that it will reassure the House.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate

The debate is interesting, but many of the interventions could be made in Committee. We are discussing the broad principle of a proposed Bill. The points that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) rightly made should properly be dealt with by amendments in Committee. They should not be discussed in the detail that we are getting into in this Second Reading debate. I hope that my hon. Friend will resist too many further interventions on points that are Committee rather than Second Reading points.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I concur with my hon. Friend. If the Bill is fortunate enough to get into Committee, I have no doubt that we shall spend a considerable amount of time arguing these points. I do not exclude the possibility of finding a better solution, but the inclusion of the words "persistently soliciting" are not a better solution to the problem.

Photo of Mr Barry Porter Mr Barry Porter , Wirral South

I am grateful for being found irresistible. I appreciate the thrust of the Bill and admire and support what my hon. Friend wishes to do. However, has he ever been to a magistrates court to see a prosecution under the 1985 Act? Has he seen policemen giving evidence where there has been a denial of the offence? Perhaps if my hon. Friend had done so, he would not be quite so sanguine about the two hurdles that he has described as foolproof.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Yes, I have been to a magistrates court and seen prostitutes being charged, but I have not seen kerb crawlers being charged. I entirely accept my hon. Friend's point. I shall follow his advice and see whether I can do that. The only problem is that under the present law very few kerb crawlers are charged, so one might have to wait a considerable time before one found such a case.

To sum up on this important point, it was a credit to the House and the other place that they adopted such a cautious approach in 1985, when the Crown prosecution service was not in being, and when, for the first time, kerb crawling was made a criminal offence. I hope that everyone, whatever their views, will accept that the present Act has not worked as intended. I feel strongly that the offence that was originally proposed by the Criminal Law Revision Committee is the best solution because, as I said, we now have the Crown prosecution service and because a great deal of distress is being caused to law-abiding citizens. If we want the police to deal with the problem, they must be given the power to do so. Therefore, I urge that this problem be rectified.

I must hurry along because I have taken rather a long time so far. Clause 1(3) would make life more difficult for kerb crawlers by proposing an increase in the maximum fine from the present £400 to £1,000. I recommend that increase because the average fine imposed on convicted kerb crawlers in my part of the world is about £100, although it has now increased slightly. If we have a maximum fine of £1,000, I hope that the average will increase to £300 or £400.

I very much hope that we shall move to the excellent system recommended by the Home Office and adopt unit cost fines, of which hon. Members will be aware. Under the system of unit cost fines, I should like a rich man to be fined the £1,000 if the court thought that correct.

Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Norwood

Under the new system of fines, is it not clear that an unemployed youngster in Lambeth between the ages of 16 and 18 could never be fined anything?

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will answer that point when he replies——

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I am used to the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser).

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I now turn quickly to a few other matters. First, I am extremely worried about the pimps who swarm around in Streatham. If there are any real villains here, they are probably the pimps. When the press reported that my Bill included provision for action to be taken against pimps, I received some very strange phone calls from people saying that pimps should be allowed to ply their lawful trade in an orderly manner and challenging my proposal to discriminate against them.

Under the Sexual Offences Act 1956, a man can be prosecuted only if knowingly he lives wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution … or ….exercises control, direction or influence. That legislation probably successfully controls the situation in respect of brothels, but where a pimp drives a girl somewhere in the evening, picks her up at dawn, and takes the money from her, it is difficult to secure a conviction.

One police force in the midlands is securing convictions, but it is having to put one or two officers on to a single suspect for days to establish whether he has other sources of income, how long he spends in the girl's company, and so on. Police in my part of the world do not have sufficient manpower to do that. Even if an officer sees a girl giving a man money, and challenges him, the girl can say that the man is her banker and will be returning the money to her the next day. There have been remarkably few prosecutions of pimps. In 1988, only 75 of them were found guilty in the whole country.

The Home Office should consider framing some form of law that will make it easier to prosecute pimps. In an Adjournment debate in January, my right hon. Friend the Minister helpfully suggested that it might be possible to create the offence of receiving immoral earnings in the pursuit of immoral earnings, and perhaps that aspect can be examined in the context of some future Bill. It requires great thought and care, which is why I did not feel it appropriate to cover it in this Bill. However, if the Home Office can incorporate in future legislation a provision for the prosecution of the pimps who run the girls who are the object of kerb crawlers, I would welcome it.

I considered including as another purpose of the Bill giving magistrates the power to endorse the driving licence of a convicted kerb crawler, which would have a salutary effect. I have been persuaded that such a measure would not be appropriate because that penalty is reserved for serious driving offences. However, I understand that someone who drives a getaway car, even if he obeys every aspect of the law while doing so, can have his licence withdrawn. It is not like saying that if one is caught pick-pocketing, one's television licence should be taken away, as such a penalty would be irrelevant. But the use of a car in kerb crawling enters the realm of a driving offence. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will cover that matter when he winds up.

The prostitutes themselves are victims, although not so much as the residents of the areas that they infest. The average fine for a prostitute in south London used to be £35, but it is now about £75. The police inform me that a prostitute can make as much as £600 per night.

Photo of Mr Hugo Summerson Mr Hugo Summerson , Walthamstow

And that is tax free.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

As my hon. Friend says, that income is tax free.

Prostitutes are back on the beat within half an hour of being taken to the police station. I agree that imprisonment is not an appropriate punishment, and its use was ended in 1983—and quite right, too. The use of the community service order stopped at the same time because it can be used only as an alternative to a custodial sentence. I do not know whether such a sentence could he invoked, but I shall not comment further on that possibility.

Perhaps it would be possible to consider the electronic tagging of persistent offenders, be they prostitutes or kerb crawlers. If a prostitute does not pay her fines, she risks a custodial sentence—but to impose one would, I think, be wrong. Tagging in conjunction with a curfew from dusk until dawn might be worth considering if the current Home Office experiment with tagging is successful, and new legislation would not be required.

Great problems are also created for the residents of my constituency when perhaps a dozen girls congregate in the street at 1 o'clock in the morning, laughing and shouting at motorists. Any chief superintendent who happens to read the report of this debate may like to know that the Public Order Act 1986 could apply in some cases. It states that it is an offence to use abusive or insulting words or behaviour … within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress". So police officers may not after all be totally helpless in trying to move on people who cause such a nuisance.

The Bill's second purpose is to remove the presumption in common law that a boy under 14 years of age is incapable of sexual intercourse, which I understand is a matter of concern to the Home Office. The Bill would cover only boys aged 10, 11, 12 or 13, since children of nine or younger cannot be charged. The present law rules out prosecution for rape, assaults to commit rape, nonconsensual anal intercourse and under-age sex.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I assure my hon. Friend that that provision does not apply to Scotland. At present, a youngster accused of rape is usually prosecuted for indecent assault as an alternative. I repeat that no child aged under 10 could be prosecuted under my Bill.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn Sir Nicholas Fairbairn , Perth and Kinross

My hon. Friend will be glad to know that such an assumption has never been made under Scottish Law. I am sure that the House will be delighted if the measure that he suggests passes into the law of this country, so that after 500 years, English law will be as civilised as Scottish law. After all, Mary Queen of Scots was betrothed to the dauphin of France at the age of five, and there was an assumption that their marriage would be consummated.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. Again and again, regrettably, I find that Scottish law has something to offer the law of England.

Offences have shown that the present assumption is nonsense. One letter that I received, whose sender I will not of course identify, stated: My daughter was sexually assaulted by a boy last August. She was found to have lost her virginity by this boy, and yet in law I am unable to do anything about the attack. The letter goes on to explain that the boy was aged only nine. Even that offence would not be covered by my Bill, but if there is a problem with nine-year-old boys, one may presume that there is with older boys.

It is difficult to know the extent of the problem because, as boys cannot legally be charged with rape at those ages, there are no central statistics. However, between 1984 and 1988 the numbers of 10 to 13-year-olds charged each year was a minimum of 40 and a maximum of 76. In Brixton, which is part of my constituency, in the past 12 months there were six cases where the police had to substitute indecent assault for rape, and they all involved girls under the age of 16. In north Yorkshire, I am told that there were about 13 cases, one of which was particularly unpleasant, when two boys aged 13 held the victim down by force.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Harrow West

Earlier my hon. Friend quoted from this disgraceful letter from the Campaign Against Kerb Crawling Legislation. Does he agree that we should condemn the rest of that letter which says that if this clause, affecting under-age boys, becomes law it will be a frightening prospect more likely to affect Black and other working class boys". Does he agree that that is a disgraceful and racist slur from that organisation which should be widely condemned? It is all very well for the author of the letter—Mr. Ian Macdonald QC—to say that from his elevated position, but it is a slur against black and working-class people and it should be withdrawn.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I am most grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend is right. It is a disgraceful letter, and I am glad that he named the QC who signed it and sent it to me.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate

Perhaps my hon. Friend would consider forwarding that letter to the Bar Council and to the Commission for Racial Equality so that they may decide whether this statement should have been made by one of Her Majesty's Counsel.

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I am grateful for that intervention, and I shall certainly consider and discuss that.

I must emphasise three points. First, no youngster under 14 can be convicted of any crime unless he knowingly committed the crime beyond reasonable doubt, as with an adult. Secondly, the youngster must understand that what he did was seriously wrong and goes beyond childish mischief.

There may be concern that this change could lead to more children appearing before the courts charged with unlawful sexual intercourse. I am advised that the law is not usually involved with what is termed "consenting adolescent sexual involvement", unless it is a special case. Therefore, we need not be concerned that more boys will appear before the courts.

I am advised, and I believe it to be true, that the effect on the sentencing—a care order or whatever—on the boy who is convicted would be neutral, whether the charge was rape or indecent assault. He would not get a bigger sentence. No doubt he would get a care order or, in the case of a had indecent assault or rape, a care order to a secure place.

One may ask, why should we bother to change the law if it makes no difference to sentencing? There are two reasons. First, the law should not be seen to be demonstrably wrong and, secondly, and more importantly, there is the effect on the victim and the victim's family. The victim will be given anonymity in a case of rape, and the family will see justice to have been done, and will feel less aggrieved by the wretched business.

I have at last finished, and I am grateful to the House for letting me speak for so long. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Mr Tom Cox Mr Tom Cox , Tooting 10:34 am, 16th February 1990

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I support the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton).

During the years that I have been in the House, soliciting and kerb crawling have been a major problem in the Balham area of my constituency, and I have made many speeches on the subject. I have asked countless questions about the issue, and the problems that it has caused and does cause to many of my constituents.

The constituency of the hon. Member for Streatham adjoins my constituency of Tooting. Bedford hill was one of the most notorious red light areas in London, and it goes from my constituency into his. We are obviously concerned about the effect that that has on our constituents, but I am sure that the problem that we are discussing here today also affects hon. Members representing many smaller towns, as they sadly now experience similar problems to those of large cities.

We often hear it said that prostitution has existed for centuries and that no one and no action will stop it. That may be true, but our constituents suffer. Whatever views some hon. Members may express in the debate, if they have never seen what happens and the problems that men and women face—especially women but some men—when they seek to protect their wives and girl friends, they know little about the deep concern felt by so many people about the problem.

The issue has to be tackled—for example, the continual abuse that people suffer when they seek to move prostitutes away from the areas in which they live; the cars that drive around hour after hour, from early evening to the early hours of the morning; the fighting that often takes place between the girls themselves, or, as the hon Member for Streatham mentioned, the pimps who look after them; the noise and the threats. My constituents have faced that day after day, for hours on end, and not just occasionally.

What about the women who live in our constituencies? Irrespective of the time of day, when they are seen walking along a street they are often taken for prostitutes. Any woman who walks along those streets, either at midday or in the early hours of the morning, is regarded by motorists who come into the area—they are not local motorists driving around—as a possible prostitute. Women have come to my surgery and appeared at meetings called by my constituents, and outlined in detail what has happened to them. Many of them now say that they will not go out in the evening because they know that they will be repeatedly accosted by kerb crawlers.

Bedford hill is about three quarters of a mile long, and women who live in the roads adjoining it have told me that, if they walk down Balham high road, to the local tube station a mile away, they may be accosted a dozen times by motorists.

In an earlier intervention, the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) asked what the difference was between a kerb crawler accosting a woman and someone walking along the street accosting a woman. But if a woman is accosted by someone who is walking, she can say, "I'm not a prostitute, leave me alone," and cross to the other side of the road. She may see someone else walking along the road, and ask if she can walk along with that person. A kerb crawler in a car, however, may persist in following her.

I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Sexual Offences Bill in 1985. We discussed at length the effect of such legislation on the rights of individuals, and the possibility of people being charged in error. One oft-quoted example was that of the motorist who casually stops a woman to ask the whereabouts of a certain address. Such arguments did not impress me: I do not believe for a moment that the kerb crawlers who drive round and round an area are looking for an address. What they are looking for are the services of prostitutes, and they see any woman walking the streets as a potential prostitute.

The hon. Member for Streatham mentioned prisons. I have some knowledge of that subject: Wandsworth prison is in my constituency, and I have visited many others over the years. I have no wish to send men or women to prison for involvement in sexual offences; nevertheless, I am very annoyed by the way in which the courts view the problem. Fining is inconsistent: in one area the fines may be reasonable enough, but in another they may be pathetic. I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman's claim that prostitutes can earn several hundred pounds a night, and such fines will not deter them.

Some years ago, I wrote to the then Home SecretaryLord Whitelaw, as he now is—to say how appalled I was at the pathetic fines imposed in the South Western magistrates court. He replied, "I am sorry for you and your constituents, but I cannot do anything about it." He may not have been able to do anything, but I believe that Law Officers in this or the other House could have acquainted the magistrates with the deep concern felt not only by Members of Parliament but by the police, who spend countless hours obtaining evidence to take offenders to court, only to see pathetic fines being imposed.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate

Is not one of the problems encountered by the lay magistracy in particular the reluctance of Ministers and the Lord Chancellor to interfere? From time to time, the Lord Chancellor addresses meetings of the Magistrates Association: perhaps a copy of Hansard could be sent to him, to impress on him the need to make a speech suggesting that a toughening of the penalties would not come amiss.

Photo of Mr Tom Cox Mr Tom Cox , Tooting

The hon. Gentleman has made some valuable contributions this morning. I fully support that suggestion.

On 17 January this year, I received some figures from the Home Office in reply to a question that I had asked. In 1988—I assume that to be the most recent year for which figures were available—517 motorists were convicted of kerb crawling in England and Wales. The present maximum fine is £400, but, according to the Home Office, it was not imposed in any of those cases.

Far be it from me to disagree with the hon. Member for Streatham, and I am not entirely opposed to his suggestion of an increase in the maximum fine to £1,000, but, if the present £400 maximum is not being imposed, what chance is there that the magistrates would impose a higher fine?

Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Streatham

I entirely agree. I wish that higher fines were imposed, and I only hope that increasing the maximum to £1,000 will at least make magistrates realise that such offences are more serious than they seem to think.

Photo of Mr Tom Cox Mr Tom Cox , Tooting

I accept that.

We often complain about the police—I complain about them myself somtimes—and, by and large, the police accept such complaints if they are justified. We should, however, be grateful for much of what they do. I pay the warmest possible tribute to the work of Chief Superintendent Tom Jones and his officers in my constituency.

In 1985, there were seven reported kerb-crawling offences; in 1989, the figure had risen to 52. In 1988, there were 346 convictions for prostitution; in 1989, the figure had fallen to 70. That may sound impressive, but, although my local police may have managed to reduce the number of convictions for prostitution, the women have simply moved a mile or so down the road and set up business in the neighbouring constituency of the hon. Member for Streatham.

Under the existing legislation, the police are prevented from doing work that they would like to do. I entirely support the removal of the word "persistently" from the 1985 Act. How often must women be accosted by motorists—once, twice, five times? Must we wait until it has happened 10 times before we say, "This woman has suffered too much: we must act"?

A long time ago, I asked the present Minister of State, Home Office—the hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), who was replying to a debate—how he would feel if he had gone home the previous evening and asked his wife what sort of day she had had, and she had burst into tears and said that she had been accosted and taken for a common prostitute by motorists as she went to pick up the children from school. I believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman realised then just how serious such offences are. I referred earlier to the fact that it is only women who are affected. In my constituency, and possibly in the constituency of the hon. Member for Streatham, husbands and boy friends who told people who tried to pick up their wives and girl friends to leave them alone were subjected both to abuse and, in some cases, physical action. That is another reason why the Bill is so important.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn Sir Nicholas Fairbairn , Perth and Kinross

If the hon. Gentleman cares to look at the 1985 Act, he will see that the matter to which he has referred is already an offence. It is an offence to cause annoyance to a woman or a nuisance to any other person in the neighbourhood. In other words, once is enough. What the hon. Gentleman seeks to do would remove that offence, which seems to me to be the very opposite of what he intends.

Photo of Mr Tom Cox Mr Tom Cox , Tooting

The hon. and learned Gentlemen's legal background and knowledge are extensive. What he says is what he believes ought to happen. However, what actually happens in the courts is very different. If he doubts that, all that he needs to do is to get in touch with the local police officers who control the areas that are represented by the hon. Member for Streatham and I and listen to what they have to say about magistrates' sentences. It sounds very nice when the hon. and learned Gentleman says, "In law, that is what it means", but that is not what is happening. That is why people such as the hon. Member for Streatham and I feel so strongly about the matter.

I have lived in my constituency for a long time. The area in which I live has never been troubled by the activities of prostitutes. I never see motorists driving round and round my area. However, in the Bedford hill area of my constituency, one sees them doing it seven nights a week. If one says they do not do it in the area where I live, so why do they do it in another part of my constituency, the answer is abundantly clear to us all: that that is the area which prostitutes frequent.

I do not decry traffic management schemes and better lighting. Such schemes have been introduced in my area, and they have helped to some extent, but what is the good of helping my constituents if, because of the action taken in my area, half a mile down the road people who previously never suffered from the problem are confronted with it?

The hon. Member for Streatham referred to those who live on immoral earnings. There were nearly 9,000 convictions for soliciting in 1988. In the same year, only 29 males in England and Wales were found guilty of living on immoral earnings. It is a little hard to believe that, with 9,000 convictions for soliciting in 1988, only 29 men were guilty of living on the immoral earnings of prostitutes.

The hon. Member for Streatham referred to the need for more vigorous police action. Men who live on immoral earnings are often the most brutal individuals. They terrorise women, many of whom do not want to be prostitutes. Faced with enormous financial problems, they thought that prostitution would help them to get out of their difficulties and that they could then return to a normal job and a normal life style. Often, however, those who live off their earnings force them to continue as prostitutes. The action that can be taken against such individuals must be strengthened by the courts and by Parliament.

Without doubt, the hon. Member for Streatham has introduced a much-needed Bill. Apart from the great support that he will receive from both his constituents and mine, he will find that many people who, sadly, have been terrorised year after year by the activities of kerb crawlers will warmly welcome the Bill. It will help to protect them, their families and the whole community from the activities of these people. I pledge my total support to the hon. Member for Streatham.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Harrow West 10:55 am, 16th February 1990

I begin where the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) left off—by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) on introducing the Bill. When it is enacted, it will provide great protection and relief for many of his constituents, particularly for young women who are plagued by these activities. It will also protect residents and young women in many parts of the country.

Ordinary people in ordinary areas are affected by such activities. No matter what the kind of area in which people live—on council estates, in middle-class areas—this plague can be found. It has certainly come to the constituencies of the hon. Member for Tooting and of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham. It has not yet reached my constituency, and I hope that it will not. If it does not, my constituents will be able to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham for the Bill that he has introduced today.

I agree that the person we want to get at is the pimp. When the Bill is considered in Committee, I hope that it will be strengthened so that that person can be caught. I am sure that that would be welcomed. As drafted, the Bill evens up the measures that can be taken against prostitutes who are treated as criminals and those who kerb-crawl and who are causing the real nuisance.

I refer to the letter against the kerb-crawling legislation. It is appalling. It casts a slur on black and working-class young boys. It is even worse than that. It can almost be described as the Sinn Fein apologia for the pimp. These people have decided to defend pimps instead of those who try to go about their lawful business. The letter says: We write this because we are concerned with human, legal and civil rights and we oppose Sir William Shelton's Sexual Offences Bill. To whose civil rights does the letter refer? It does not refer to the civil rights of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, or to the civil rights of the constituents of the hon. Member for Tooting, or the citizens of Wolverhampton, Norwich and other cities who have been plagued by this problem and who have written to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

I hope that the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham will be able to answer one query about those who solicit on foot. The policy advisory committee on sexual offences said that this matter caused it concern when it considered the problem. If we stopped the kerb crawlers but allowed those people to get out of their cars and solicit on foot, thereby continuing the problem but in a different form, we should have won a pyrrhic victory.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will consider that matter in Committee. I warmly congratulate him on the Bill and I hope that it will have an unruffled passage through the House. It will certainly have my support.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Two seconds early. Would it be for the convenience of the House if I asked the Foreign Secretary to make his statement now?

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

The hon. Gentleman is always very helpful.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).