Amendment 104E

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Report (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 12 January 2022.

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Votes in this debate

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede:

Moved by Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

104E: After Clause 172, insert the following new Clause—“Offence of requiring or accepting sexual relations as a condition of accommodation (1) It is an offence for a person (A) to require or accept from a person (B) sexual relations as a condition of access to or retention of accommodation or related services or transactions.(2) For the purposes of this section, A is—(a) a provider of accommodation,(b) an employee of a provider of accommodation,(c) an agent of a provider of accommodation, or(d) a contractor of a provider of accommodation.(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a maximum of 7 years.”

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, this group of amendments seeks to introduce new offences to make it illegal to have sex-for-rental accommodation. Currently, sex for rent was affirmed as a sexual offence in 2017 by the Ministry of Justice. Under the current legislation, an individual can be prosecuted for such a crime only under Section 52 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003—causing or inciting prostitution for gain. Only one person has been charged in a sex-for-rent case, and only as recently as a year ago.

The law itself has made it extremely difficult for sex-for-rent victims to seek justice. According to the law, victims must be legally defined as prostitutes, which is a huge deterrent in their access to justice. Another reason why this scandal continues virtually unchecked is that landlords are able to advertise sex for rent in their properties very easily. Landlords still post on sites such as Craigslist, where they talk about free house shares, room shares or even bed shares, and even some of the postings are extremely explicit about the requirement of sex for rent.

Amendment 104E would create a new offence of requiring or accepting sexual relations as a condition of rental accommodation, with a maximum sentence if convicted of seven years. Amendment 104F would create a new offence of arranging or facilitating the requirement or acceptance of sexual relations as a condition of rental accommodation, with a maximum fine of £50,000. That would of course be for those who allow the advertisements on their websites or allow any other form of this type of advertising.

Amendment 114A would put a requirement on the Secretary of State to establish a review into the prevalence of, and the response of the criminal justice system to, the offence of administering a substance with intent under Section 61 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This is a separate point, and it is something that has had a lot of publicity recently. What is not known is how much of that has been drummed up by the press, if I can put it like that, and how much is real. Nevertheless, the concern that has been raised is certainly real, and this amendment would put an obligation on the Government to get to the bottom of the matter and see whether it is a real problem that nightclubs and other people need to take action to stamp out.

Amendment 114B would put a requirement on the Secretary of State to establish a review of the offence of exposure under Section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act. Again, this is a separate and wider issue, which has ramifications regarding violence against women and girls and the question of whether it is a step along that road. It is right that it should be viewed in its wider context. As a sitting magistrate I see these cases fairly often; they are highly variable and the perpetrators range completely across the social spectrum. Nevertheless, the impact on the women and girls who are subject to these exposures is real, and I am sure there is sufficient data to see whether people who expose themselves progress to much more serious offences.

However, it is fair to say that the main purpose of this group of amendments is to put in new offences of illegalising sex for rent. I beg to move.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, for tabling Amendments 104E and 104F, because this gives me an opportunity to speak to them as I was not available at an earlier stage.

My first point is that sex for rent is invariably immoral and abhorrent and frequently evil, so I agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord today and by noble Lords the last time we debated it. Unfortunately, I share the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, in Committee on 22 November last year. Like the noble Lord, I am worried about the unintended consequences. He asked:

“What about the landlady of the bed and breakfast who seduces the potential paying guest and offers him or her a free room in return?”—[Official Report, 22/11/21; col. 684.]

The problem is not so much in the drafting but in the way that the amendment works. For instance, I worry about the use of the word “provider”. Does the proposed offence catch a young, affluent male student who has a spare bed or room to offer a female student, partially or wholly in exchange for sex or an intimate relationship?

The amendments are morally correct but, looking around the corner, could they have unintended and undesirable consequences? Take a young girl whose moral compass is not yet fully stabilised, calibrated and adjusted. If these amendments had the effect desired, she would no longer be able to secure her accommodation directly by immoral means. The risk is that she would be more likely to seek an arrangement with an escort agency, which would involve numerous sexual partners rather than just one, with the obvious attendant health risks. We are of course already seeing this problem arise, and we need to do something about it.

In Committee the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, made the point that it should not be necessary for young people, particularly girls, to have to sell themselves in this way, and she was absolutely right. It is disappointing to read that the Government appear to have wimped out on planning reform, which means that developers will continue to concentrate on meeting the needs of the affluent at the expense of the poor.

What I have said does not mean that my noble friend the Minister has escaped. I am not convinced that Sections 52 and 53 were designed with this problem in mind. Because of the way that they work, the Section 54 definition of a prostitute is very wide. By the way, I think the term “prostitute” is a horrible, derogatory term when a very large proportion of them are victims of their own circumstances. I agree with noble Lords who suggest that Sections 52 and 53 do not work in the way that the Government suggest. We cannot expect many victims to stand up in court and agree that they are prostitutes, even if protected by anonymity, as explained by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby.

I see the problem with the amendments not as one of drafting but as more fundamental: the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, may have selected the wrong solution. I think he should perhaps have sought to insert a new provision into Section 75(2) of the 2003 Act, which deals with consent in rape and sexual assault cases. In egregious cases we would expect to see a gross disparity in economic power, age, socioeconomic group and possibly ethnicity, and therefore it would be obvious that there was not genuine consent. In egregious sex-for-rent cases appropriate for prosecution, that would not be difficult for a jury to determine.

I urge my noble friend the Minister to reject these amendments but to look instead very carefully at the issue of the lack of genuine consent in sex-for-rent cases.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 6:15, 12 January 2022

My Lords, I do not share the concerns that have just been expressed. It seems to me that Amendment 104E makes it very clear what the mischief is; it is making it a condition of access to accommodation that sexual services are provided. We all know what that means, and juries will know what it means. It is a real mischief and it needs to be addressed. If the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, divides the House on Amendments 104E and 104F, he will certainly have my support.

However, I have concerns about the drafting of Amendment 104F. My concern is that in several places it uses the concept of “arranging” an offence—not simply facilitating the offence but arranging or facilitating it. I do not really understand what the difference is and what is added by “arranging an offence”. I am not myself aware of other contexts where that concept has been used. It is a very vague concept and, I think, a rather undesirable one.

I am also troubled by proposed new subsection (3)(c) of Amendment 104F, which makes it an offence if a publisher is informed that its actions

“had enabled the arrangement of or facilitated an offence” and it then

“failed to take remedial action within a reasonable time.”

All that is extremely unclear and uncertain as to the ingredients of the offence. No doubt that can be dealt with at Third Reading if others share my view. I emphasise that I support the amendments, but I draw attention to those matters that cause me concern.

Photo of Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hope of Craighead Judge

My Lords, I have one point to add to what has been said by my noble friend Lord Pannick. The word “publisher” troubles me a bit. It is not defined in the amendment, and I am not quite sure what that word is directed to. Is it somebody in business as a publisher or somebody who simply publishes something, describing the activity rather than the trade? The amendment would be improved if something was said in it as to what exactly is meant by the word “publisher”.

Photo of Baroness Kennedy of Cradley Baroness Kennedy of Cradley Non-affiliated

My Lords, I speak briefly in support of Amendments 104E and 104F, in the name of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. In doing so, I declare my interest as director of Generation Rent.

Predators online attempt to coerce men and women to exchange sex for a home by exploiting their financial vulnerabilities. They have used the economic effects of the pandemic as a marketing technique. This is already a crime, and it is not a new crime, but there has only ever been one charge for this offence, and that was in January last year. However, back in 2016, Shelter found that 8% of women had been offered a sexual arrangement. Two years later, its polling estimated that 250,000 women had been asked for sexual favours in exchange for free or discounted rent, and its more recent research showed that 30,000 women in the UK were propositioned with such an arrangement between the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and January 2021.

This is a crime that goes on, openly and explicitly, through adverts on online platforms. Despite the adverts being clear in their intention, they go unchecked, are placed without consequence and are largely ignored by law enforcement and the online platform providers. The fact that there has only ever been one charge for this crime shows how inadequate the law and CPS guidance are in this area.

The victims of this exploitation have been failed. As my noble friend said, for a victim to get justice, they need to be defined as a prostitute for a criminal case to progress, which is a huge deterrent that has to be changed. The online platforms—that is what I believe is meant by “publisher”—allow this crime to be facilitated, and they must have action taken against them. That is why I very much support the amendments tabled by my noble friend.

In closing, I pay tribute to the honourable Member for Hove in the other place for his campaigning on this issue, and the many journalists who have kept this issue on the agenda, including the team at ITV, whose research I understand helped to lead to the one charge for this crime that there has ever been. No one should ever be forced by coercion or circumstance to exchange sex for her home. There is a housing emergency in this country. It continues to hit new lows—so low that sexual predators can deliberately take advantage of people’s desperation to find a home. For me, Amendments 104E and 104F are an opportunity to protect some of the country’s most vulnerable renters.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, I shall be brief because we have a lot to get through. I should have preferred Amendments 140E and 104F, the sex-for-rent amendments and the facilitating amendments, to be rather more tightly drawn. I note that the points I made in Committee were taken by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. However, I have been persuaded by re-reading the speech made in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, and what she said today, with her extensive experience as director of Generation Rent—that there is a serious need for criminal legislation to stop what is a particularly nasty form of predatory behaviour. I also took the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, on the interpretation of Amendment 140E, implicitly supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, so we will support those amendments. We will also of course support the amendment calling for a review of the criminal law relating to exposure offences and spiking offences, for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and which we supported in Committee.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, explained, these amendments relate to three matters we debated in Committee: namely, whether there should be a bespoke offence to tackle so-called sex for rent and whether the police, prosecutors and courts are doing enough to tackle offences relating to spiking and exposure. If I may, I shall take each issue in turn.

Amendments 104E and 104F are intended to address the so-called sex-for-rent issue, whereby exploitative landlords, and others, require sexual relations in return for housing or accommodation. This is an abhorrent phenomenon, which takes advantage of very vulnerable people, as noble Lords have said, and it has no place in our society.

Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, there are existing offences which may be used to prosecute this practice, including the Section 52 offence of causing or inciting prostitution for gain and the Section 53 offence of controlling prostitution for gain. Both offences carry a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment. They can capture instances of sex for rent, depending on the circumstances of the individual case.

In 2019, the Crown Prosecution Service amended its guidance on prostitution and exploitation of prostitution to include specific reference to the availability of charges for offences under Sections 52 and 53, where there is evidence to support the existence of sex-for-rent arrangements. In January of last year, the CPS authorised the first charge for sex-for-rent allegations under Section 52. The individual against whom these allegations were made has pleaded guilty to two counts of inciting prostitution for gain. To better protect tenants from rogue landlords convicted of certain criminal offences, banning orders were introduced through the Housing and Planning Act 2016. A banning order prohibits named individuals engaging in letting and property management work. The Government have been clear that housing associations and local authorities should use these orders if needed. Action will be taken against landlords who exploit vulnerable people. This behaviour simply is not tolerated.

I thought I might say something about a victim having to identify as a prostitute for the Section 52 and 53 offences to be used. I must stress that anyone making a report to the police would benefit from the anonymity provisions in the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992. The Section 52 offence applies when an identified victim has been caused to engage in prostitution or incited to do so, whether the prostitution takes place or not. The Section 53 offence applies whether the victim has, on one or more occasions, provided sexual services to another person in return for financial gain.

Moving on to Amendment 104F, I definitely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, about the woolly terminology of “arranging an offence”, and the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, about “publisher”, but on the amendment itself, the forthcoming online safety Bill will require companies to put in place systems and processes to remove certain types of illegal content as soon as they become aware of it.

I move on now to spiking, the subject of Amendment 114A. This would require the Secretary of State to review

“the prevalence of, and the response of the criminal justice system to, the offence of administering a substance with intent under section 61 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003”.

I share the concerns expressed by the noble Lord about this offence, particularly the recently reported phenomenon of spiking by needles. This is understandably causing considerable anxiety among young people, especially in our university towns and cities, but there is no need to create a statutory obligation on the Government to review the operation of Section 61 as this issue is already very much on the Government’s radar. Indeed, a statutory requirement setting out a specific agenda risks hindering the Government’s ability to respond flexibly to the problem.

As I have set out previously, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has already asked the National Police Chiefs’ Council to review the scale and nature of needle spiking and is receiving regular updates. As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said, the picture is still emerging and there is currently little evidence of needle spiking being linked to sexual offending—but we are monitoring the situation closely and will not hesitate to take any action should the reports from the police indicate that this is necessary. In the meantime, I encourage anyone who believes that they have been a victim of spiking to report the matter to the police as soon as they become aware of it, as this will greatly assist the investigation.

I move finally to Amendment 114B on exposure, which would require a review into the operation of the offence of exposure under Section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Again, I do not think that it is necessary, for the simple reason that the Ministry of Justice, together with the Home Office, already keeps the operation of the criminal law under review. But I make it very clear that we share the noble Lord’s desire to ensure that the criminal law is up to date and provides consistent and effective protection against this intrusive and inexcusable behaviour. We listen to the voices of victims alongside the concerns of stake- holders and practitioners and, if reform or further scrutiny of the criminal law is required, we respond.

For example, we were made aware of concerns that the Section 66 offence may not fully capture indecent exposure online, including the sending of unsolicited indecent photographs to others over, for example, social media and dating apps. I believe that this practice is known as cyberflashing. As a result of such concerns and others expressed around the development of new technology, social media and the new methods of offending that such developments can bring, we commissioned a Law Commission review into harmful online communications. We wanted to ensure that there was no gap in the law in this area. The Law Commission has now published its report and made a number of recommendations, including the creation of a new criminal offence to capture specifically the practice known as cyberflashing. I can assure noble Lords that we are actively and carefully considering the recommendation.

In addition to this work to ensure that the criminal law is up to date, we also need to ensure that the existing law is properly enforced. To support police forces in this regard, just last month the College of Policing published guidance to forces on tackling street harassment. This includes a section on exposure and sets out the various civil protection orders that could be used to protect the public and tackle perpetrator behaviour.

I hope I have been able to reassure the noble Lord that we take all three of these offences very seriously and that we will continue to work with the police, prosecutors and others to prevent such offending and ensure that victims of these crimes get the justice and protection they deserve. With that reassurance in mind, I hope the noble Lord will be content to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 6:30, 12 January 2022

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It has been quite quick but focused on the issues raised in this group of amendments.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, raised some reservations and talked about the nature of the victims. I advise the noble Earl to read very carefully what my noble friend Lady Kennedy said when she itemised the victims of this offence. It is overwhelmingly women who are victims of this offence. The numbers are very large and it has been going on for years. My noble friend is an expert on this matter and I think his remarks were misplaced, if I can put it like that.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I have no issue with what the noble Lord said, nor with what the noble Baroness said. This problem has been going on for a very long time and large numbers are involved; I do not disagree with that.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, I move on to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. I am grateful for their support. They raised drafting issues, if I can put it like that, around the word “arranging” in Amendment 104F, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, questioned the use of the word “publisher”—although my noble friend Lady Kennedy said that she regards “publisher” as including online platforms. Nevertheless, I am not stuck with the specific wording in front of us. I think the purpose of the amendments is perfectly clear, and I am glad that both the noble Lord and the noble and learned Lord are nodding their heads.

I was disappointed with the answer given by the Minister. She made it clear that the Government take these issues seriously and said that they are constantly reviewing the law on these matters, but here is an opportunity to change it right now. There has been a very effective campaign on this issue, and it would have been an opportunity for the Government to change their approach. So I think that we on this side of the House should force the issue and test the opinion of the House, just to see the strength of opinion on this long-standing problem.

Ayes 206, Noes 176.

Division number 1 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Report (5th Day) — Amendment 104E

Aye: 206 Members of the House of Lords

No: 176 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Amendment 104E agreed.