We return from great international issues to the type of subject that we commonly debate on a Friday. The train of the debate has been somewhat lost, but no doubt we shall be able to change down to a suitable gear for a Friday debate.
One of the attractions of Fridays is that we leave behind us the great issues, such as German reunification or the future of South Africa, and discuss parking, consumer guarantees, or kerb crawling. Perhaps we flatter ourselves if we believe that it is our role to discuss great issues over which we have no control. The minor matters that we tend to discuss on Fridays are of more immediate concern to our constituents and often they are issues over which we have some control.
I once asked a friend of mine who had a successful marriage what the recipe for it was. She said that she let her husband decide all the important things such as who will be the next Prime Minister and the rate of money supply, whereas she decided the unimportant things, such as where they would live and where they would go on holiday. Perhaps that is the appropriate role to adopt when considering problems that concern our constituents. I suspect that kerb crawling and such like has more relevance to them than the great issues of the day, about which we tend to get rather excited.
The most common problem that I hear about at my surgeries is that of bad and inconsiderate neighbours, which causes an enormous amount of distress. There is no ready practical remedy for it. It is also clear from today and from the record of the 1985 debate that kerb crawling is a problem experienced in many constituencies. I hope that we can go some way to finding a practical solution to a practical problem. It is interesting that, so far, no one has adopted a high moral tone in this debate—the House is at its least attractive when that happens. Hon. Members recognise that this is a practical problem of nuisance caused to residents in some areas.
The Bill has two main objectives. The first is to increase the effectiveness of the law dealing with kerb crawling and the second is to remove the serious limitation in the law that prevents the conviction of boys under 14 for the offence of rape.
It is difficult to obtain convictions for kerb crawling because the police or the prosecuting authorities must prove that the soliciting was persistent or that it caused nuisance or annoyance. The offence was created by the Sexual Offences Act 1985, but that Act does not appear to be much of a deterrent. That is because it is difficult for the prosecuting authorities to prove persistence, nuisance or continuing annoyance.
The Bill also introduces a much higher fine for the offence and it is right that the courts should have the discretion to impose such a fine. I appreciate the argument for relating the fine to a person's income, but that represents an extremely dangerous end of the wedge. One could argue that because a sentence of one year's imprisonment would be devastating to certain people, they should be sent to prison for less time than the hardened individual for whom five years' imprisonment might be more appropriate. That would be unfair. Those involved with the criminal law and criminals in particular recognise that sentencing is arbitrary. If personal circumstances were taken into account when imposing a fine one could quickly get into deep water.
I should have thought that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies. If someone propositioned someone else and asked her if she was a prostitute, that would annoy and it would be a nuisance. If that person was a prostitute there might be a burden of proof on her to suggest why it caused annoyance, but if an innocent person were so addressed it is inevitable that offence and annoyance would be caused. There would be no need to prove that as it is obvious.
At present the courts sentence recidivists to longer imprisonment than those who, if sent to prison, would lose their livelihoods and their ability to support their families.
I accept what my hon. and learned Friend says about the difficulty of proving the annoyance caused. My legal studies took place a long time ago, but I believe that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies to civil, not criminal law. In England one must prove the elements of the offence in criminal cases. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that it is sensible to sentence a repeated offender to a longer term of imprisonment than someone who has committed his first offence. If, as a matter of law, the courts were invited to fine relatively wealthy people more than less wealthy people, we would get unto great difficulty, especially if we translated that doctrine to other areas of sentencing.
A respectable city figure of 40 years' standing who commits an insider trading offence might find one year in gaol devastating. It would probably ruin his marriage and his livelihood, especially if he spent all his resources on legal fees. The hardened east end criminal might find one year in gaol a doddle. He would be prepared to take that sentence in exchange for £50,000 gained from an armed robbery. If one starts to draw such distinctions one is in dangerous territory. The present arrangements are too arbitrary, as is the proposal about fines.
I do not intend to deal in detail with the abolition of the presumption that boys under 14 years cannot commit the offence of rape. It is clear that they can and my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) is on to a good point.
There is no doubt that great nuisance is caused to people in neighbourhoods where kerb crawling occurs. It is interesting to note from the 1985 debate how many hon. Members said that kerb crawling was a serious nuisance in their constituencies. When my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) introduced her Bill she said:
From the point of view of ordinary women who live in that area or who have to pass through it on their way to work, it can be an extremely embarrassing and unpleasant experience to be accosted …
That is becoming more and more intolerable, because it brings secondary nuisances into play. Quarrels arise where a prostitute and a man do not agree on a price, car doors bang and there are traffic problems
Those problems were shared by many other hon. Members. The debate covered a wide swathe of the country and political opinions.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) said of my hon. Friend's Bill:
She will be giving great hope also to communities such as the one which I represent, where local residents have had to suffer year after year the abuses, threats and noise that arise when an area becomes the haunt of kerb crawlers … Motorists are to be seen driving around for hour after hour looking for prostitutes … any woman who walks along the streets of some areas … will be seen as a potential prostitute. They can be young school girls or elderly ladies … They can be walking home from school or going home from work. I have even been contacted by women to tell me that they have been stopped by motorists when taking their young children out. They have been seen as potential prostitutes.
It is clear that kerb crawling is a great nuisance in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham. Apparently the 1985 Act has not had much effect in diminishing the incidence of that nuisance and that suggests that more needs to be done.
In the 1985 debate the former Member for Battersea, Mr. Alfred Dubs, said that he welcomed the Bill. That constituency is close to Streatham. He said:
Since I first came to the House in 1979, I too have received a continuing stream of complaints about kerb-crawling men from women in the area. Some of the complaints are extremely bitter. I was once told by a mother that her schoolgirl daughter aged 14 was afraid to walk home from school in the afternoon because she was being harassed … I have received millions"—
No doubt that was an exaggeration, but he obviously felt strongly about the matter—
of complaints about what it is like to walk home on dark afternoons and evenings and to be subjected to such intimidation".
Similar problems were experienced in other constituencies. The former Member for Nottingham, North, Mr. Richard Ottaway, described the problems in Nottingham. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, lichen (Mr. Chope) described what was happening in that area and spoke of the problems in Wandsworth when he was leader of that borough council.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) made similar complaints about Birmingham where, he said that
kerb crawling has reached epidemic proportions and we cannot wait much longer for legislation to control it"—[Official Report, 25 January 1985; Vol. 71, c. 1241–88.]
He then read out letters from his constituents making that point.
In 1985, there was clearly a serious problem of nuisance in a widely differing range of towns and cities. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham has put the case strongly about what has been happening in Streatham, and the hon. Member for Tooting has dealt with similar problems in his constituency, the problem clearly occurs in many other areas. I have a copy of a letter from Wolverhampton metropolitan borough council in 1988 to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) which says:
You are probably aware of problems relating to Prostitution in the All Saints Area of the town. The Housing Services Committee have been concerned for some time about the effect upon residents in that area … It would appear that operating under existing legislation with the existing resources available particularly to the Police Authority, there is little more that can be done to reduce prostitution.
Somebody from Norwich wrote to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary when he was Home Secretary saying:
Would you please consider making our lives a lot easier and happier by a change in the law, to prevent soliciting in residential areas, not just in Norwich but nationally.
That letter was written in June 1989.
It seems clear that the problem is continuing. I do not know whether the changes that my hon. Friend proposes will make it easier to obtain convictions for the offence. We often do not achieve the effect that we have set out to achieve in legislation. Although, on the face of it, the Bill would appear to make convictions easier to obtain, I should be interested to hear the views of my right hon Friend the Minister.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham seeks to remove from the elements that are necessary to prove the offence the aspects of persistence and annoyance and nuisance. I realise that the first and the second two are really alternatives. Under the 1985 Act, a man commits an offence
if he solicits a woman … in a street or public place
for the purpose of prostitution
from a motor vehicle … or … in the immediate vicinity of a motor vehicle that he has just got out of or off.
Under the Bill, it would no longer be necessary to prove that he had acted "persistently" or had caused nuisance or annoyance. That would seem to make the offence easier to prove. Does my right hon. Friend consider that that is the view of the police, or is the problem simply a question of police priorities and resources? The prevention of kerb crawling may not be high on the list of police priorities.
I should also be interested to hear my right hon. Friend deal with a matter that has been raised by one or two hon. Members—the potential for convicting innocent people. The police seldom fit people up, but it is far from unknown, and several recent cases are extremely disturbing. We should not want to make that easier or encourage it by anything we do in the House. However, if corrupt police officers decide that they want to fit people up with convictions, it is pretty easy for them to do so already and I am not sure that the changes proposed by the Bill would make it easier.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham also seeks to remove the presumption that a boy under 14 is incapable of committing rape. Events about which we know have made it clear that we should support my hon. Friend's proposal. Clearly, such offences are committed by people under that age, although it would still be necessary for the prosecution to prove that they knew that what they were doing was wrong and there would not be a presumption, as there is in the case of someone over 14, that they intended to cause the natural consequence of their actions. As my hon. Friend said, nobody under the age of 10 could be convicted of the offence.
If the Bill were passed, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham would succeed in simplifying section 1 of the 1985 Act by removing the qualification of persistence, and a man would commit an offence if he solicited a woman for the purpose of prostitution from a motor vehicle while it was in a street or in a public place, or in a street or in a public place while in the immediate vicinity of a motor vehicle which he had
just got out of or off".
Ending a sentence with two prepositions and a conjuncton takes some doing. Perhaps the legislation could be polished up in Committee to avoid that as it is an ugly piece of construction.
What my hon. Friend seeks to do seems to be achievable. He would make the offence simpler to prove in court. Persistence is clearly difficult to prove unless, as m; hon. Friend said, police officers follow a particular individual and can themselves give evidence of persistence.
The other aspect of the present offence is that it has to be committed in such a manner and in such circumstances as to be likely to cause annoyance to the woman concerned or nuisance to others in the neighbourhood.
It is difficult to prove nuisance to the woman concerned. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) suggested that that would be self-evident. However, evidence is still required and it is extremely unlikely that the prostitute in question will give evidence herself. If an innocent bystander is accosted in this way, she can give evidence, but those circumstances are relatively rare. When it happens, the woman is probably reluctant to go to court and to be cross-examined on how she got herself into the situation. She may lay herself open to various unsavoury allegations.
We are still left with section 2 of the 1985 Act which says:
A man commits an offence in a street or public place if he persistently solicits a woman … for the purpose of prostitution.
The distinction here is that the offence does not involve the use of or proximity to a car. I should be interested to know why it is felt that the word "persistently" is appropriate in that offence, as it makes the previous offence difficult to prove.
The changes spring from the Criminal Law Revision Committee, which reported back before the 1985 Act. The committee clearly felt that some changes to the law were necessary. It said:
We have found it impossible to separate the question of kerb crawling from the more general question of men accosting women for the purpose of prostitution … We were, however, in favour of creating a specific offence to prohibit kerb crawling.
I am not sure of the logical connection between those two statements. Nevertheless, the committee concluded that a specific offence relating to kerb crawling was necessary. It proposed three separate offences, which dealt with different aspects and all were reflected in the original draft of the 1985 Bill. The amendments that qualified the offences in a way that my hon. Friend seeks to change today were introduced in Committee. If the Bill is passed, we shall return to the position of the 1985 Bill as originally drafted and the position that was proposed by the Criminal Law Revision Committee. It suggested:
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. We are not of course drafting the offence—this would be task of the Parliamentary draftsman.
It did not consider it appropriate or necessary to have the qualifications of persistence, or of causing annoyance or nuisance. Those qualifications were added to the Bill at a later stage.
I should be grateful to hear what my right hon. Friend has to say on that aspect of the Bill. Will it make it easier to obtain convictions? Has the problem of obtaining convictions been caused by the qualifications in the 1985 Act, or by reluctance on the part of the police to prosecute or to give the matter a sufficiently high priority? There is a practical problem of nuisance to people living in many areas of our cities. If anything, the problem is becoming worse. It has not been helped substantially by the 1985 Act and, on the face of it, the Bill is likely to go a long way towards improving that. Subject to what my right hon. Friend says, if the Bill will have beneficial effects, we should support it.
I want to join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) on introducing the Bill. It gives the House the opportunity to review the Sexual Offences Act 1985 and to consider what might be done to improve it. There is no dispute in the House that kerb crawling is a despicable act. We should all like it to be eliminated, primarily because it impairs the quality of life of those in the red light districts whose homes suffer as a result of it.
The other major part of the Bill concerns the charging of boys under the age of 14 with rape. That measure is long overdue, and the hon. Member for Streatham has our unequivocal support for it.
The 1985 Act was introduced because it was felt at the time that there was no modern legislation that could effectively get to grips with the problem that was so enlighteningly outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). There is kerb crawling in my constituency, but on a much smaller scale than in the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting and of the hon. Member for Streatham.
The 1985 Act has failed, probably mainly because of the evidential requirements, which were so stringent that the Act is now difficult to enforce. It must be established that the kerb crawler was persistent, or that his actions caused nuisance or annoyance; to find the evidence for that is clearly difficult—a difficulty that the Crown prosecution service and the police have had to face.
This Bill makes it possible for a kerb crawler to commit an offence by soliciting only once. That must make convictions easier; the task of gathering evidence will be correspondingly lessened. Those who are so dramatically affected by this disease would welcome a simpler, more effective mechanism for bringing charges.
It has been said today that kerb crawling degrades parts of our cities, and hon. Members have given vivid descriptions of the huge numbers of cars that travel around certain areas. We have read reports of people's gardens being used as urinals. The hon. Member for Streatham told us an horrific story about syringes. Many drug pushers and junkies who have reverted to prostitution hang around these areas.
In addition to the environmental decay that has stemmed from these practices, I am sure that hon. Members who are married men would find it grievously offensive if their wives were persistently solicited when walking the dog, bringing a daughter home from a party or going to the local shop. Effective action must be taken to stop that.
The intentions behind the 1985 Act were good, but it has failed to deal with the problem. While the police and the courts have been using that defective legislation, however, local authorities have been taking action. The traffic management schemes to which the hon. Member for Streatham referred have made a difference—but there is no single simple solution to the problem. Any solution must embody many elements.
The police have also taken various initiatives. For instance, they observe kerb crawlers driving around and then send letters to their homes telling them that they have been seen cruising in a red light district. Other police forces have written to employers of those whom they believe have been driving around red light areas persistently.
I find such practices rather dubious. If a wife opens a letter sent to someone's home—it happens in some families—a broken marriage could result. A man's career could be wrecked if an employer read a letter from the police and decided that his kerb-crawling employee should no longer work for the company. In such cases, the police are taking action on their own against people who could be perfectly innocent: they have been neither charged nor convicted. The practice should be discontinued.
I have read the Bill with great care, and I do not believe that it will solve the problem satisfactorily. Certainly, it is not the complete answer. But any legislation would have to be taken in conjunction with other innovative measures, such as the road traffic schemes that I have mentioned. The House would be mistaken to believe that this legislation would eradicate the problem.
Clause 1(2) is central to my reservations about the Bill. Under the 1985 Act, an offence is committed if a person persistently solicits, but under this Bill he would have to solicit only once to commit an offence. I should like to examine in a little detail, even though we are on Second Reading, the way in which the police catch kerb crawlers.
I refer the House to an article in The Independent, dated 7 December 1988 and entitled, "Kerb-crawlers targeted in a nightly game". It is instructive to discover how the police operate already, and then to square that with the measures in this Bill.
The journalist who wrote the article sat in the back of a police control car. Sergeant Eddie Rich was the officer in charge and, according to the article,
is blessed with remarkable night vision and a good memory. The registration number of each passing car is mentally logged.
The punters drive around the particular circuit of roads—twice past the police suggests a punter, three a certain bet for tailing to see if he is persistently soliciting …
The rules of the game are strict: the man has to be observed persistently soliciting. It is no good just seeing him driving slowly. Sometimes, the punters are overtaken and waved to a stop after having picked up a prostitute…
Normally the punters are cautioned: two cautions and they are 'current'—liable to arrest under the Street Offences Act …
The driver is asked to get out of the car, informed pleasantly that he is in a red light area, asked if he knew the girl he had just picked up was a prostitute …
'Some deny it—the stories are variations on a theme of "I was just giving her a lift" or "she's an old friend".' The man is usually informally cautioned and sent on his way by Sgt. Rich with a cherry: 'I won't tell your wife if you don't' …
Persistent soliciting, repeatedly approaching women who do not respond or being caught several times in the same night in the company of prostitutes, leads to a summons under the Sexual Offences Act.
I thought that a useful illustration. In summary, the police take the numbers of the cars going around if they have been past them three times. Next, they see a man get out of a car. Thirdly, they see the man talk to a woman and, fourthly, the police then decide whether the man was soliciting a prostitute. That is essentially the practice.
It is clear that clause 1 would give the police considerable powers to bring charges—appreciably more than currently exist. The police would need to know that the woman was a prostitute, but I do not believe that that is too difficult, because many of the women will have been to court. They will be known and some will even have pleaded guilty. However, how will the police be able to establish that the man was soliciting a prostitute? It is unlikely that the police would have overheard the conversation between the prostitute and——
If I can just finish my little bit of logic, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
It is unlikely that the police would have overheard the conversation between the prostitute and the man. Furthermore, the prostitute would be unlikely to deny that she was solicited by him. Therefore, on what grounds will the police proceed?
Although as I have already said, I support the motive behind the Bill, I am concerned that we might be creating legislation that could result in innocent people being convicted. I should like to give an example of that, but before I do so, I give way to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin).
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I understood him to say—I assume that he is basing this on the Sexual Offences Act 1985—that a woman has to be a prostitute before there can be proceedings. That does not seem to accord with the Act, because all that the man has to be seen to do is to solicit
persistently or, subject to section 5(6) below, in such 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".
Therefore, we do not need proof that the woman is a prostitute. All that needs to be proved to show that a man has committed an offence is that he has solicited a woman for the purpose of prostitution. It does not matter whether she is a prostitute. He is doing wrong by assuming that she might be, and by the fact that that is the purpose in his mind.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was directing my argument to cases in which a man gets out of a car and solicits a prostitute. The hon. Gentleman is right to bring that point to the attention of the House, because that part of the legislation protects women who are not prostitutes. On those grounds, I support what the hon. Gentleman has said 100 per cent.
I should like to give an example of the sort of case that is helping me to decide whether we should give the Bill a Second Reading. We have heard about how the police operate, but let us take the case that I outlined to my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting in the Library yesterday. I believe that he obliquely referred to it.
I refer to the example of a man who is visiting a friend who has a flat above a shop in a red light district. The visitor has never been to that area before and is having difficulty in finding the flat, which does not have a conspicuous entrance. He is lost and drives around the block two or three times to try to find the flat. The police have noticed that he has passed them two or three times and that he has been staring out of the window of the car towards the pavement. He still cannot find the flat, and after looking for some time, he gets out of the car to seek advice. He goes on to the pavement and a young lady readily comes towards him. He asks her about the address of his friend. The visitor does not know that she is a prostitute. However, by now the police will have got into their car and assumed that he was kerb crawling and soliciting.
As a friend of the police, I always weigh in their favour, but, as legislators, we have to take into account the fact that the police report could say, "I did not hear what was said, but I believe that the man was soliciting." No corroboration is needed. We all know that in such a case the visitor is an innocent man, but it is clear that he would be vulnerable to being charged in accordance with the 1985 Act, as it would be amended by the hon. Gentleman's Bill.
I hinted earlier in an intervention that I believe that, as legislators, we have to be careful what we create. The cry of civil liberties is often raised, but we must take it into account and ensure that innocent people are protected. I believe that that case is realistic and fear that the clause needs careful attention. The matter should he considered in Committee so that we ensure that we have legislation that not only eliminates the disease of kerb crawling and prostitution, but which also ensures that we have a balance.
The hon. Member for Streatham is aware that the other place included the word "persistently" in the Act for the very reason that a new piece of legislation was being introduced that might result in heavy convictions. That is why there is doubt in my mind; although I want powerful legislation that is easy to operate, I want to ensure that we shall not convict innocent people.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern and welcome what he has been saying. Perhaps I can help him with the example that he gave of a visitor who might have got into trouble, because I understand that it is a cause of concern. However, under the 1985 Act, that person could still have got into some trouble.
I remarked earlier that Nottingham police have secured convictions by noting the number of a car seen to be driving past two or three times and stopping, and because the driver had a conversation with a prostitute. However, that takes a lot of police manpower, and a prosecution is not certain.
Even under the present legislation, a person in the situation described by the hon. Gentleman might find himself in difficulty with the police—but not if he was a genuine visitor. He would only have to say, was visiting my aunt. She has just moved to a new flat and I am not sure where she lives. I have her address and telephone number." The police only have to go to that address and knock on the door, to find it opened by a lady saying, "Yes, where's my nephew?" I do not believe that a genuine visitor would find himself summonsed.
That returns us to the earlier point, that prosecution would be at the discretion of the police and the Crown prosecution service.
Other legislation could be invoked, but the 1985 Act was created specifically to deal with the problem of kerb crawling and prostitution and with the horrific problems that we heard about. We are trying to create legislation directed specifically at kerb crawling and prostitution and to make it work so as to achieve a balance between securing a conviction with reasonable ease—by removing the necessity for evidential requirements that are too stringent—and ensuring that there are never any wrongful convictions. I would welcome the Minister's comments on the risk of misjudgment, for I know that he will have put: a lot of thought into that aspect.
Clause 1(3) contains the proposal, which we support., that penalties should be raised from level 3 to level 4, from £400 to £1,000. A penalty of £400 is absurdly low for such a serious offence. To put it into perspective, a level 3 fine is imposed on people who attempt to evade paying their tube train fare. Clearly, that offence can hardly be compared with the nuisance and annoyance caused by prostitution and kerb crawling.
Labour's policy document, "A Safer Britain" stated that fines should be means-related, to ensure that people on low incomes are able to pay the fines imposed on them. The last thing that we want is to put people behind bars because they cannot pay.
Raising the penalty to level 4 will mean that both rich and poor will, at least under Labour's proposals, regard their fines as a real punishment. I understand that many kerb crawlers are reasonably well-off and probably do not even notice that their bank account has been debited by the amount of the fine at its current level.
Clause 2 will enable charges to be brought against a boy below the age of 14, against the current assumption that such a boy is incapable of rape and cannot have sexual intercourse. We fully support that notion and believe that the present law is unrealistic. The situation was best summed up by the Home Office Criminal Law Revision Committee's "Working Paper on Sexual Offences—October 1980". Paragraph 27 of that document states:
Under the present law, as we have already stated, a boy under 14 cannot be convicted of … rape … whatever his actual physical capacity. Boys under this age … do in fact commit acts which would be rape if they were over 14 … Cases of this kind occur in what have become known as 'gang bangs', that is a series of sexual assaults by a group of youths on a girl. Such cases are very serious indeed as the girl often suffers severe emotional injury as well as physical harm … The older boys will be convicted of rape and punished severely, while a boy under 14, who may have had a leading part in the rape, can only be treated as having aided and abetted.
Such a scandalous situation should not exist in modern law.
It is difficult to assess the extent of rape offences by boys aged below 14. We know that in 1988, extraordinarily enough, 45 boys under 14 were prosecuted for indecent assault, and that a further 290 were cautioned. Our posture is that rape is so serious, and its effect on women so great, that men should be severely punished, whether or not they are below the age of 14—provided that they knew that what they were doing was wrong.
My right hon. and hon. Friends and I will give the Bill a Second Reading but in its present form, it will not succeed any more than the 1985 Act in seriously limiting kerb crawling. We must take a broader look, beyond legislation—which cannot by itself do the job. There are many elements to the solution, and they must be carefully considered in Committee, where I hope that we shall have an opportunity to add to the proposals of the hon. Member for Streatham, in helping the people living in red light districts who have to endure horrific problems, in the hope that they will be able to enjoy a decent environment in future.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the debate, but I seek your clarification as to how I may pursue an urgent matter that has just come to my attention. Apparently, on 11 February the Hinkley Point nuclear power station was, as a result of storms, out of action for 20 minutes, during which time it had no cooling—which could have led to a serious meltdown and a major nuclear incident.
I understand that the Secretary of State for Energy was notified of that incident. An investigation into whether or not such an event did occur is, I am sure the House will agree, a matter of considerable urgency and public concern. Will it be possible, through your good offices, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to alert the Secretary of State and to request that he makes a statement to the House or outside it about whether such an incident did occur and to propose steps to resolve the matter—or to give a reassurance that it did not? My information suggests that there was a serious incident in which the station's lights and cooling system failed, and that there was considerable disorder and anxiety.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, but there is nothing that I can do directly to help. Doubtless what he has said will be listened to and notified to Ministers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) on his fortune in securing such a high place in the ballot, and on introducing the Bill. My hon. Friend is well known for the assidious way in which he looks after his constituents. Kerb crawling is a great problem in his constituency, and he has rightly grabbed with both hands the opportunity to deal with the problem.
Kerb crawling and prostitution are a plague—a localised plague but nevertheless one that covers quite large areas. Once an area has a reputation for such a thing it is difficult to get rid of it. Different areas have different reputations. For example, Belgravia has a reputation for large stucco houses, and that is why people go there. Islington has a reputation for a famous street market, and my constituency has a reputation for the longest street market in Europe and for an extensive area of public open space—Walthamstow marshes. It is also well known for including an area of Epping forest. Those are good reputations, but part of my hon. Friend's constituency has a thoroughly bad reputation, and possibly because it is so bad, it is all the more difficult to get rid of.
Other areas suffer from kerb crawling and prostitution. I lived in Islington for many years, and I know that Finsbury Park was a notorious locality. It is very pleasant—close to a park—with nice houses and wide streets, but it had that reputation and the local council had to work hard over a number of years to eradicate the problem.
Kerb crawling is an unpleasant activity, except for the person indulging in it. However, by indulging in that activity people make an area unpleasant for others. Take an area such as King's Cross, which at one time had a reputation for kerb crawling. I do not know whether it still has, but at one time it certainly did. Around a major railway station, there are a lot of people coming and going.
They may include strangers, people from abroad perhaps, and it cannot be pleasant for them to arrive at King's Cross station, to wander out into the street to look for a cup of coffee or something to eat and to be accosted or see someone obviously kerb crawling.
I have seen kerb crawling in the King's Cross area. I saw a large, black Mercedes with diplomatic plates crawling around the back streets, and it was clear what the driver was up to.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) offered a note of caution about lost strangers, and I think that that is a valid point which will have to be closely considered in Committee. Some areas of cities have the most complicated one-way systems. Harking back to Islington, the Barnsbury one-way system is notorious. Once in it, it is almost impossible to get out without the services of a guide. Even taxi drivers do not like to go there. I am not insinuating that that area suffers from kerb crawlers—I am sure that it does not. However, if one does not know the area and gets stuck one can go round and round. The car may start to overheat, and the driver may get hot and bothered and not know which way to turn. He may come up against a no entry sign, which means that he has to turn round and find another way. In the end, drivers are sometimes forced to go the wrong way down a one-way street because it is the only conceivable way of getting out.
If a driver is unlucky enough to find himself in a one-way system in an area known for kerb crawling there may be the possibility of an error. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham said about that, but it is nevertheless a possibility, and perhaps it could be considered in Committee.
Urban areas suffer increasingly from disturbances. Hon. Members with town and city constituencies know that only too well, as they are receiving more and more complaints. During last year's long hot summer most people kept all their windows open, and the weather was taken as an invitation to be sociable and give parties—which nowadays seems to mean people arriving at any time up to 4 am, often with much screeching of tyres, revving of engines and blasting of music from car radios. The hosts of such parties sometimes seem to hold open house: word gets round, and people come from miles away. I have received complaints about such problems in two streets in my constituency; they are very difficult to deal with.
As all hon. Members know, it is unwise to become involved in disputes between neighbours, but it is difficult not to when the inhabitants of an entire street arrive in despair at our surgeries. As soon as I see the dark rings under their eyes, I know all too well what the problem is: they have been kept awake at night, perhaps throughout the week.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham pointed out, kerb crawling compounds the problem. People who sleep in front rooms are forced to sleep at the back of the house to get away from the noise. Groups of prostitutes sometimes congregate at 1 am, screaming, shouting, chattering and laughing; people arrive in motor cars and hoot their horns. The disturbance must be terrible. On top of all that, there is the distress caused to women and their daughters as they go to and from school and the shops or engage in entirely legitimate recreations. They must dread coming home sometimes, knowing that they will be accosted.
I am glad to learn that the penalties will be sharpened. The Bill proposes an increase in the fines from scale 3 to scale 4: not being a lawyer, I did not have a clue what that meant, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham for spelling it out. There is, of course, a danger that heavier fines may simply encourage prostitutes to work harder to recover the money that they have had to pay, and we should make it clear to the courts that prostitutes must really feel the effect of the penalties imposed on them.
Kerb crawlers must also be deterred. Once they are convicted, the story of their shame must be spread across their local newspapers. If a kerb crawler comes from the north of England, The Northern Echo should know about it, and should spread the story across the centre pages with a whacking great photograph in the middle and the caption, "This man was convicted of kerb crawling". He must be held up to scorn and ridicule.
That sort of penalty will make people think twice about committing such offences. Fines are chickenfeed to rich business men and even foreign diplomats, who simply write out a cheque or take the money out of petty cash. They will value their reputation far more than just having to write out a cheque. If they know that the story will be spread across the local newspapers, together with their photograph, it will act as a strong deterrent.
How do we tackle the problem nationally rather than locally? I do not believe that the French system would be acceptable here. If we legitimised brothels from scratch, if I may put it that way, where on earth would they be sited? If people saw in their local newspapers an application for planning consent for a brothel in the neighbourhood, they would not be very happy.
Yes, indeed. One wonders to what use a warehouse in an established industrial area might be put. Could it be said that a change to use by prostitutes is a legitimate industrial activity? We are skating on thin ice.
Other countries have attempted to solve the problem by heavy-handed and brutal means. When I went on a long journey round South America about 12 years ago I was approached by a girl in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. Fortunately for me, just at that moment a police car came. round the corner and she fled, or she might have left me holding the baby. I should have found myself in serious trouble. Paraguay's prisons are not the most pleasant of places.
When I was in Buenos Aires I went to the docks area purely for the purpose of travelling across the river Plate to Montevideo. Exactly the same thing happened. A couple of girls suddenly popped out of the building and gabbled something at me. My Spanish was quite good in those days, but I could not follow what they said. However, they did not have to say anything; what they meant was perfectly clear. Again, fortunately, just at that moment—my guardian angel must have been wearing a police helmet—a police van appeared. However, the two girls dragged me into the house, slammed the door and bolted it. I thought that I was going to be in the most desperate trouble. I looked through my passport to see whether I had the name and address of our consul in Buenos Aires. Fortunately, all that the girls did was to take me upstairs where there appeared to be a perfectly
legitimate restaurant where I spent a happy and convivial evening. They did not attempt to take me downstairs again.
In such countries, the problem is solved by the use of police brutality. Nothing would induce me to suggest that that is the way to solve our problem. The Bill is on the right lines. However, it needs to be considered further in Committee. Its provisions will result in cleaning-up the area where my hon. Friend's constituents are suffering. All hon. Members must believe that that is the right way to proceed.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. In particular, I most warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) on introducing a Bill that attempts to deal with a most difficult, awkward and, frankly, unpleasant subject. It is not a subject for the squeamish. My hon. Friend has shown considerable courage in introducing the Bill. Both the House and the country are in his debt.
My hon. Friend described some ugly and disagreeable scenes in parts of Streatham. I must say that I have never heard of kerb crawling taking place in my constituency, in Twickenham, Teddington, Hampton or Whitton. My hon. Friend said that in his constituency it took place only in certain districts and neighbourhoods and that it did not happen in many other constituencies. I cannot claim that all my constituents are entirely innocent of all crimes. Constituencies are affected by their geography: as mine is near Heathrow airport, there have been cases of drug smuggling; and there have been other serious crimes, ranging from murder and rape to burglary.
It is something of a mystery why prostitution should take place in this day and age. It seems rather odd that people should pay for what can be obtained free, but it does happen.
What causes offence is the open display and the banging about. Hon. Members have spoken of the nuisance and the annoyance, and have referred to doors slamming. Over the years, I have protested about aircraft noise, which is a major nuisance in my constituency as it is close to Heathrow. However, one old lady wrote to me saying that she did not mind the noise of the aircraft as she liked to think of people going for rides in aeroplanes, but what she could not stand was neighbours' car doors slamming at night.
One can well imagine that, in kerb-crawling areas, the noise of doors slamming, loud conversation, people calling out from cars, cars circling round and brakes screeching at all hours of the evening and the night must be very annoying to many people.
I accept what my hon. Friend says—that the enforcement of the 1985 Act is difficult because of the way in which it is drafted. It is significant that, in the last year for which statistics are available, there were only 521 cases of men prosecuted for kerb-crawling, yet there were more than 8,000 cases of women prosecuted for soliciting—about 16 times as many.
I am rather doubtful whether the proposed increase in the maximum fine from £400 to £1,000 will act as much of a deterrent unless it is fully applied by the courts. The £400 fine is now seldom imposed: I am told that the average fine is about £100. Unless the courts take notice of the increase and impose high penalties, I am sceptical about the deterrent effect of increasing the maximum fine. The courts are too lenient in respect of many different criminal offences, and this is probably one of them.
I should like to ask my right hon Friend the Minister of State whether the motor vehicles referred to in the Bill include motor cycles. We have to anticipate the law applying into the next century, when the North sea oil runs out and petrol will be more expensive and more people will turn away from the use of cars and use motor cycles.
I should like to be assured that the proposed amendment to the law on kerb crawling will include motor cycles, because it would be possible to kerb-crawl for the purpose of soliciting prostitutes by motor cycle. Motor cycles might be even noisier than cars. The engines of motor cycles might make even more noise than the slamming of car doors. It is not convenient for everyone to travel on motor cycles. Some people who are solicited—the younger ones, if not the older ones—may be prepared to ride pillion.
The threat of AIDS adds importance to the debate. The House debated AIDS the day after my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham had an Adjournment debate in January 1989 on kerb crawling. Since that time, the threat of AIDS has increased. Within the past few days, Health Ministers have given new warnings on the increasing risk of AIDS being spread through sexual intercourse between men and women. Prostitution increases that risk. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham said that some prostitutes in Streatham may be suffering from AIDS or hepatitis. In that context, it is right to intensify the attack on kerb crawling.
Clause 2 rightly abolishes the presumption that theoretically a boy under the age of 14 is incapable of committing rape. An extract from The Daily Telegraph of 5 September 1989 is headed: "Hunt for boys aged 12 and 14 over sex attack." It reads:
A boy aged about 12 and another believed to be between 14 and 16 years old were being hunted by police in Leeds yesterday after subjecting a 29-year-old married woman to a horrifying sexual assault at knife-point. More than 40 police officers were drafted into the Garforth area where the woman was attacked early Sunday evening after being dragged into bushes between two busy roads and ordered to strip naked.
She was raped by each of the boys as the other watched, using a Stanley knife with which she was repeatedly threatened.
The attack lasted more than 15 minutes.
A detective inspector said
She was now being treated by a police surgeon and was likely to be admitted to hospital because she was still in a serious state of shock.
`In all my experience, I have never seen such an attack to be committed by someone as young as 12, but from the evidence we have there is no doubt that one of these boys is no older than that … We are treating this as an extremely serious attack on this lady and we are anxious to apprehend these two boys as quickly as possible.
Under our law people under the age of 14 cannot be tried for the crime of rape so we are describing this as a serious sexual assault.—
The age of 14 was set in the 19th century, partly by statute law and partly by case law. It is a known medical fact that the age of puberty for girls and boys has gradually reduced. Boys and girls mature earlier than they did a century ago. I do not know the reason for that; it may have something to do with improved and balanced diet.
The tendency to violent crime is augmented by violent and pornographic scenes depicted on video or sometimes on television. I hope that, in addition to enacting the Bill, the House, through the Broadcasting Bill and other measures laid before it, will tighten up on pornographic and violent videos. The combination of those videos and the gradually reducing age of puberty have contributed to some boys aged under 14 committing crimes that should come within the ambit of the Bill.
I hope that the Minister will listen to what I am saying. I hope that the House will give the Bill an unopposed Second Reading and that it continues to progress as rapidly as possible.
I was listening carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel); if he wants to cross-question me afterwards in a sort of "Mastermind", I am sure I shall be able to answer his questions. I am glad to join in the congratulations that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Sir W. Shelton) on the excellent Bill that he has introduced today.
I am grateful for this opportunity to outline the Government's position. Before doing so, it is incumbent on me, on behalf of the House, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham wholeheartedly. All hon. Members who have spoken have been in favour of the Bill. I congratulate him warmly both on his success in the ballot and on introducing a Bill that strengthens and rationalises the law in a way that will be understood and welcomed not only by his constituents, but by people throughout the country, particularly where the nuisance of street prostitution and kerb crawling exists.
The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham are fortunate to have his powerful voice in this place. My hon. Friend has previously discussed the nuisance that so affects his constituents. The fact that he has struck a resonant chord with the House can be recognised by the strong support that he has received from the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and from my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) and for Lewisham, West (Mr. Maples), subject to one qualification that I shall attempt to deal with later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham certainly enjoys the support of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall), also subject to one or two qualifications that I shall attempt to deal with. If the Bill receives a Second Reading, we can deal with those reservations in Committee. We heard a powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson). I only wish that he had gone on longer with his tales from Argentina, but perhaps we can discuss them on another occasion in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham also received congratulations from my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham in a powerful speech.
Almost exactly a year ago, I was on my feet replying to a speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham on the Adjournment. In his speech he represented, with his customary courtesy and clarity, the need to modify the wording of the Sexual Offences Act 1985. He gave us a treat today by reading some extracts from the speech that he made on that occasion. I often feel that my own speeches read quite well when I look back on them. Certainly, the extract that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham gave read extremely well. It has worn well in the passage of time.
At that time, I said that I agreed with his arguments, some of which I was unfamiliar with. I gave a clear hint that the Government would favour a reform as soon as they had a suitable opportunity to look again at the issue. My hon. Friend has taken me at my word, and I am glad to be at the Dispatch Box again, almost exactly a year after he raised the issue on the Adjournment, honouring what I said to him then and offering the Government's support for what he seeks to do.
My hon. Friend raised a number of broader points, which he has not chosen to put into his excellent Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent drafting of the Bill. He made points that he felt deserved an airing. He spoke of what we should do about pimps and pimping and the men who live so vilely on the often young, simple and deluded women, who ply their trade. He has made some important points and the Government must consider that issue in future, although not within the Bill's context, unless my hon. Friend seeks to amend the Bill later in Standing Committee. I think that perhaps he will not.
My hon. Friend asked whether men who were convicted of kerb crawling should have their driving licences removed as an additional penalty to drive home the lesson of conviction. It is an interesting idea, but the main purpose of imposing disqualifications from driving following convictions for road traffic offences is to remove bad drivers from the roads. That is why we have that offence. That would not be the purpose here if we were to take up that suggestion.
We could also remove or endorse the driving licences of people as an additional penalty. There is an additional penalty for offenders who use motor vehicles in committing more serious, indictable offences—for example, robbery. Only the Crown court can disqualify an offender on those grounds and only when convicting the person of an offence punishable with more than two years' imprisonment. Kerb crawling is not on a par with that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham specifically asked whether someone kerb crawling from a motor bicycle would be caught by the Bill; the answer is yes. It covers any form of motorised vehicle. I hope that that satisfies him.
A couple more interesting points were raised about the use of electronic monitoring and curfews as a possible form of punishment for prostitutes to keep them off the streets. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will certainly bear in mind what has been said. The House will be aware that, in my right hon. Friend's White Paper, which was announced last week to such universal acclaim, the Government's intention that we should move towards making curfewing more available to the courts was not just floated, but stated. That is an important issue, and if we have a criminal justice Bill, we shall have to consider the use of curfewing a a power to be made available to the courts in this context.
The Bill has two separate purposes, and it is right that each should be considered fully and individually on its own merits. The first is to increase the effectiveness of the law in dealing with the appalling and persistent—I use the word carefully—nuisance of kerb crawling. The second is to remove a serious limitation in the law, which prevents the conviction of any boy under 14 of a sexual offence involving penetration.
This morning, we have heard a great deal about the first purpose of the Bill set out in clause 1. I propose to begin by saying a little more about the second purpose, about which we have heard rather less. It involves a reform which merits closer attention than it has been given hitherto.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham explained, the abolition of the presumption about the sexual capacity of boys under 14 was recommended by the Criminal Law Revision Committee in its 15th report. There was unanimous support for the proposal To that extent, clause 2 is short, to the point and just what is wanted by the committee and most sensible public opinion today.
As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West reminded us, it is important when we legislate to understand what we are doing and why we are setting out to do it. I have studied the Bill carefully to see the import of clause 2. It is important to be absolutely clear why my hon. Friend wants clause 2 and to remove some evident misconceptions about what the Bill may do in respect of clause 2.
The first misconception is that we are just talking about rape. The sexual offences that the law says such boys cannot commit are not restricted just to rape. Obviously, I must go into some detail, but I intend to spare the House as much unpleasant detail as I can. It is important to appreciate the effect of clause 2 before the House decides to give the Bill a Second Reading, as I hope it will.
The offences that the law says boys under 14 cannot commit include all those crimes that involve the offender's capacity, physically and unlawfully, to penetrate a victim. All the various acts and attempted acts of rape and of buggery are involved. It is important that the House understands that.
The second misconception that might arise from clause 2 is that boys under 14 just do not do that type of thing. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham has already given us a graphic account of an incident in Leeds, from which it is clear that boys have committed the exact offences under consideration.
The other misconception is that, if boys under the age of 14 commit such acts, the numbers are too small for the law to be involved. That fallacy is aided by the fact that, because such offences are not recognised, statistics on them are not collected. Unless the House decides to change the law we must, for now, depend upon the necessarily anecdotal, but powerful, evidence from the police in Leeds and elsewhere.
Statistics tell us, however, that in the four latest years for which figures are available, nearly 300 boys aged between 10 and 13 years were proceeded against for indecent assault on a female. That is a pretty shocking statistic. In 85 of those cases, the assaults were committed not on young girls—not that that makes it any better—but on victims who were older than 16, in some cases women in their 20s or even older. Therefore, in a substantial number of cases adult women were the victims.
The lesser charge of indecent assault had to be substituted in those cases because the law does not allow for the offender to be capable of doing what he did. Those cases are not concentrated in London, and they are exceptionally distressing. In the past 12 months alone, in West Yorkshire there have been 12 cases involving boys under 14. There were half a dozen in Brixton, one small area of London, and others around the country.
It is important for the House to realise the nature of the offences. In one, the victim, aged four, handicapped and epileptic, was raped by the boy next door, aged 13. In another the victim was aged five. A victim aged 10 was gang-raped while visiting friends by 13-year-old boys who dragged her upstairs. The last of the litany of distressing examples that I could give the House was a sickening multiple attack on a married woman in her late 20s, a mother of three, by schoolboy rapists under the age of 14.
Any hon. Member who has received, as we have received in the Home Office, letters from the parents of a violated child who has gone through the most awful physical pain and, as hon. Members have said, who may suffer persistent mental trauma for many years, will know the pain and the consternation that they feel, not only because the act has happened, but because the law is adding to the injury of a vicious rape or a brutal act of sexual assault the insult that it did not happen. The law says that what manifestly happened and can be proved did not happen. That is grossly unsatisfactory for the statute book.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham has homed in sharply on that point. The House and I should be grateful to him for dealing with the matter. Our criminal justice system is entitled to the confidence of victims just as much as to the confidence of criminals. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is right when he says that we should put the victim first on every occasion. The victim and the victim's relatives need the help and support of the law.
I come now to a closely related matter which arises out of the argument that I have used in support of the Bill, but which has not been picked out in this morning's debate and which affects adult women in particular. The names of juveniles who are the victims of rape or other offences are, of course, protected absolutely by law. It is wrong to suppose that the Bill would make no real practical difference to the adult victim.
This is an important issue. At present, the adult woman victim of an under-14 rapist is not protected by the anonymity provisions which would be afforded to her were the alleged assailant aged over 14. Surely that is wrong. The issue concerns me as chairman of the ministerial group on women's issues. If the offence is rape and can be recognised as such, all victims, however young their assailants, will from now on benefit from the provision guaranteeing anonymity.
In particular, non-juvenile victims will be guaranteed anonymity by the provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 1988. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) and I served together on the Committee that considered that Bill. We were equally happy, as was the Labour Front Bench, to agree to the extension of anonymity to a woman who was an alleged rape victim from the moment that she reported the rape, whether it was ever brought to trial or conviction. It is clear that, unless we change the law concerning boys under 14, we cannot extend that provision to women. Should the Bill receive a Second Reading and go into Committee, that protection will be extended. People will be tremendously grateful to my hon. Friend for making that possible.
My hon. Friend's provision is important to the parents of young victims in that they are seeing that justice is done and that it is recognised that an offence has been committed when it manifestly has been.
That will be a relief not only to the parents of victims, but to the parents of those who may perpetrate such acts. It will deter those youngsters from getting into trouble.
My hon. Friend is right about parental responsibility in this respect. It is a theme on which she has addressed the House on a number of occasions and I agree with her entirely.
This provision is extremely important to the adult victim of an under-14 assailant. She may now have the protection of anonymity to help her through the hurt and trauma of rape. It is a significant provision for a small group of victims.
Clause I may be of more significance to more people and seeks to amend the kerb crawling offence in section 1 of the 1985 Act.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if, as I believe is right, younger boys are to be prosecuted and convicted of offences of rape and other penetrative offences, it will be important to examine the way in which they are dealt with after conviction? Is the Home Office looking into appropriate ways of dealing with these young boys, who tend to he peculiarly mixed up and from appalling backgrounds?
My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who is responsible for policy matters governing the care of young offenders in this category, are considering these matters all the time. It is a disturbing fact that those who assault have often in their turn been assaulted physically or sexually, or both, in their youth. There seems to be something, if not hereditary, at least connected to family circumstances, which leads some of these young disturbed people to behave as they do. But we cannot forgive them in the first instance for the dreadful acts that they have committed. We hope to reform and rehabilitate them as soon as possible thereafter, while, of course, protecting the victims.
I turn now to the first provision of the Bill, to amend the kerb crawling offence in section 1(1) of the Sexual Offences Act 1985. A good many hon. Members have experienced complaints from their constituents: my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West, the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), the hon. Member for Tooting—he made a powerful speech on which he was rightly congratulated by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West—my hon. Friends the Members for Twickenham for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg), and for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter); and lastly, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West who made a perfectly timed four-minute intervention before the statement at 11 am. I understand the anxiety that some hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West, have voiced about this provision.
Anyone who has looked into the history of the 1985 Act will know that my hon. Friend's Bill deletes from the kerb crawling offence in that legislation the qualifications of persistence, nuisance and annoyance which were added to it during its passage to the statute book. The insertion of those qualifications reflected the caution with which Parliament, understandably and perhaps even rightly, approaches proposals that may affect the liberty of the individual. But there was no real argument back in 1985 about the need to grant powers to deal with severe local problems and the nuisance caused by kerb crawling.
So far, the debate today has not been about what may or may not be morally reprehensible but about which activities pursued by prostitutes' clients should be restricted because of their effects on residents and ordinary women. The House has to strike the right balance between dealing with the problem effectively and removing this persistent stain on the lives of many, and safeguarding the interests of the innocent. This morning we have heard one or two powerful examples of how innocent people might be convicted. I do not think that likely, but that is the sort of issue that we need to discuss in more detail in Committee.
There is a crucial difference between today's debate and the debates of five years ago. Today's takes place against the background of the all-too-evident failure of the offences finally agreed upon in the Bill brought in by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) to catch the nuisance. That point was powerfully made by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) in one of his interventions.
In the last three years for which figures are available—1986, 1987 and 1988—the total number of convictions for the section 1 offence for the whole of England and Wales is only 955. The annual average for the whole country is probably less than the number of kerb crawling incidents seen in one week—or perhaps in one night—in some hon. Members' constituencies.
The offence as specified in the 1985 Act—this was not the intention of my hon. Friend the Member for Drake, who tried so hard to make the provisions work at the time—has neither caught nor deterred offenders in the way in which many hon. Members hoped that it would. The reason for that failure is not difficult to find. Because of the changes made in Committee, the Act was blinded to the real nuisance of kerb crawling. I can advise my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West, who raised a point earlier on this issue, that the Act is not as effective as it should be.
My hon. Friend asked specifically whether the police feel that they need more powers. The answer to that is a clear and unequivocal yes. Those who have to live with kerb crawling or who have spoken to those beleagured people or to the police who try to deal with the nuisance, know that the real nuisance is in the sum of the activity, not the individual incident—a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham. In such areas, there is no shortage of prostitutes. Even if a man does not solicit persistently, when his activities are added to those of others, a persistent nuisance definitely emerges.
Hon. Members who represent some of the worst afflicted areas, such as my hon. Friend the Member For Streatham and the hon. Member for Tooting, will readily agree that whole neighbourhoods continue to live with a dreadful infestation of slow-moving cars trailing girls. Many women are in fear of going about in those areas. Feelings range from unpleasantness to outright fear.
It is said by some that, where there is no witness to testify, there cannot be a victim. I do not find it at all difficult—I do not know of any hon. Member who will find it difficult—to identify the victims in this respect. The victims of kerb crawling are the constituents of Streatham and elsewhere, who suffer from the nuisance. Frankly—this is why I personally support my hon. Friend's Bill—I do not think that we have given the victims of kerb crawling enough attention. Many of those victims have made representations to hon. Members of all parties, to the Home Office and to the Metropolitan and other police forces.
Of course individuals have been upset by isolated incidents, but I reckon that the Criminal Law Revision Committee go it right. When the committee published its report in 1984, I hope that its members were not too put out by the fact that its recommendations were not acted upon immediately, although some hon. Members tried to ensure that they were. I hope that the members of the Criminal Law Revision Committee—they are a distinguished group assisted by distinguished secretaries and assistant secretaries—now feel a bit more cheerful, because it eventually looks as if their advice will be accepted, albeit belatedly. I do not know whether any member of the CLRC has ever read any W. H. Auden, who was right when he said
Time will show nothing but I told you so.
The CLRC will be able to sign up to what Auden wrote.
The CLRC examined the whole subject in detail and concluded clearly and correctly in 1984—this has been borne out by the passage of time—that by its very nature, kerb crawling is a nuisance, irrespective of whether the manner in which it is carried out may or may not cause a nuisance on any particular occasion. The CRLC said:
The law should not be too difficult to enforce. It must deter. Evasion should not be easy … An ineffective law would be worse than useless.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposal to increase the maximum fine from £400 to £1,000 is unlikely to be effective if magistrates impose an average fine of £100?
My hon. Friend is right to say that fines must be set at the right level to be an effective deterrent. I hope that, when members of the Magistrates Association read the report of this debate in Hansard and other accounts of the Bill's progress through Parliament, they will take note of my hon. Friend's emphasis on the need to impose fines that really bite on those people who cause such a nuisance. If that is not done, the Bill will not have the effect that it should. I agree very much with the spirit of the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham.
The problem with the existing offence is that the prosecution has to show not merely that a man was soliciting from a car for the purposes of prostitution but that that activity was repeated. I do not need to rehearse the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham made most effectively. There has been a hint in comments made about the Bill, not in this Chamber, but publicly, that there is a lack of confidence in the police and that a person should never be convicted of kerb crawling or of any other offence on the evidence of a policeman alone.
Would the same argument be made if the policeman was the sole witness to an armed robbery or to a rape in the street? Surely not. The lack of confidence that some people have in the ability of the police to pursue such offences properly is illogical and wrong, and does no credit to those who display it. The laws of our country allow a court—the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, who sits as a recorder in the courts of our land, will correct me if I am wrong—to convict on the evidence of one credible witness in all except a very few cases.
Those who have criticised the ability of the police to provide satisfactory evidence are suggesting that the sole evidence of any adult witness may be relied upon to secure a conviction—unless that adult person happens to be a police officer. That is ridiculous, and I utterly refute any suggestion that the police cannot and would not properly enforce the law. That is their job, and the one that the public expect them to do.
I am not insensitive, and no right hon. and learned Member should be, to fears about the possible use of techniques to entrap men into committing offences, and it is important that civil liberties are properly addressed. Government policy is clear, and was spelt out to the Home Affairs Committee in the course of its recent inquiry covering the investigation of drugs offences. British police operate under strict guidelines on the incitement of offences. Officers are instructed:
No member of a police force and no public informant should counsel, incite or procure the commission of a crime.
Quite right too. We have no intention of changing those instructions.
The basic question is whether kerb crawling is to be tackled at the root—that is, on the basis of the act of soliciting. As I said, our intention in supporting the Bill is to ensure that the problem is dealt with at the root, locally.
While I appreciate the concern expressed by some—though not by many right hon. and hon. Members today—that the section 1 offence should retain its qualifying elements, I ask the House to reject that proposal. The principal nuisance is kerb crawling, and to continue to allow car drivers to pick up women provided that they make only one approach each time or cannot be proved to have caused nuisance or annoyance will not cure the serious problem experienced in so many inner-city areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham asked a penetrating question about why, in his area, only six police officers are apparently concerned with what one might loosely term vice squad activities, whereas in next-door Wandsworth, 12 officers are available for those activities. I understand that in Streatham there is a team of one sergeant and four constables dedicated to combat prostitution, but that may change from week to week, and month to month.
The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis is well aware of the seriousness of the problems. The deployment of police manpower is a matter for the Commissioner and not for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. However, no doubt the Commissioner, who does such distinguished service in the capital, will take close account of what has been said today, because the Official Report will be drawn to his attention.
At this stage, as I am dealing with police enforcement, I should mention the point raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) in his earlier intervention, when he described something which is not an offence at common law. He suggested that approaching a woman could be an offence at common law. I have to tell him that an assault at common law will be committed only if the woman who was the victim was struck, or put in fear of being struck.
These nuances of the differences between Scottish, English and Welsh law are lost on me, and I must take more instruction from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross.
The letter that some of us have received from the Campaign Against Kerb Crawling Legislation, has been satisfactorily, and rather fiercely dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West and in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate.
This has been a most interesting debate. The Government feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham will bring about two important reforms in the Bill. One reform affects a small number of people—women attacked by boys under 14. The other affects a much larger number of people, whose lives are made miserable by street prostitution and kerb crawling.
We need to get the law right for the whole country, so that the appropriate offence can be charged for the appropriate mischief. I support my hon. Friend's Bill, the Government support my hon. Friend's Bill, and I think that the whole House has supported it. I hope that it gets a richly deserved Second Reading, and a good passage through Standing Committee to the other place and on to the statute hook, where it deserves to be.