Clause 13

– in a Public Bill Committee on 10th February 2009.

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Paying for sexual services of a controlled prostitute: England and Wales

Question (5 February) again proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. Have you received a communication from the Government or any other representations about new clauses to be added to the Bill? Last Thursday, the Home Secretary announced that she would introduce new provisions about gang injunctions. That would be a significant addition to the Bill and, as we are halfway through our proceedings in Committee and have limited time left to discuss new clauses and existing clauses, we are obviously worried about whether we will have enough time to debate what seems to be a significant, new addition to the Bill that requires detailed scrutiny and examination. I am therefore interested to know whether you have received representations or any news about the matter.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

I have not received any representations, but I would not expect to do so. The rule is that the Committee can consider amendments or that I can call them only if they are tabled three sitting days before our proceedings. Does the Minister wish to comment?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

I shall take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point of order and consider whether we can take the appropriate action.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. I wish to ask two things. First, will it be possible for the Committee to be told first, or at least at the same time as others, when we will be debating the measure, as that is only polite. Secondly, I raised with the Deputy Leader of the House the matter of whether there would be adequate time for scrutiny of Bills such as the one under discussion both in Committee and on Report. He said that the Government would do their utmost to ensure that the only new clauses tabled on Report would be responses to the Committee and not extra chunks to be added to the Bill. Sometimes the Government have to do what they have to do, but I hope that the message is understood that we need adequate time on Report to discuss such matters, especially when new clauses are tabled late in Committee.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

That point of order was clearly a message for the Minister, not the Chair.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

The new provision to which the hon. Member for Hornchurch referred related to gangs, and the Government intend to table such a new clause for discussion in Committee, not on Report. It is the Government’s intention—it is certainly mine—to ensure that, as far as possible, we adhere to the commitment that the Home Secretary and I gave on the Floor of the House and here in Committee that we will have adequate time to discuss the various measures in the Bill and that we will have sufficient time to prepare for them.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

That was useful. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon and for Hornchurch for raising those points of order, and to the Minister for informing us of his intentions.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

I decided on Thursday to contribute to discussions on the clause. I listened carefully and necessarily patiently to the detailed argument made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, but I thought that we were in danger of omitting from the debate—except for a passing reference to it when we reached clause stand part—the policy objective behind the clause.

I acknowledge that much of the discussion on Thursday afternoon was helpful in identifying ways in which the Bill can be improved, but I consider that those who were arguing for greater evidence to back up the basic approach of the Bill seemed to be quite happy to assert that the Bill was completely wrong, that it would be counter-productive and that there was no point in reducing demand for trafficked women who are prostitutes, without giving any evidence themselves to back up their assertions. I therefore want to spend a minute or two looking at the policy focus.

I admit that when I first discovered the Government’s approach I too was a little sceptical, but once I read the Home Office publication, “Tackling the Demand for Prostitution: A Review”, in November 2008—a very useful document that contains much of the evidence that the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon thought was missing—it helps our understanding of the Government’s position. It is very clear from information already in the public domain that almost every approach to reduce prostitution has weaknesses. However, on the evidence available it is reasonable to attempt to reduce demand for prostitution by operating a strict liability rule that will hopefully dampen demand, and in particular—I will say more about this in a minute—make men think very seriously about the nature of the prostitution services that they are buying.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Will the hon. Lady explain how the information will be imparted to men who pay for sexual services? Will there be a national advertising campaign to let men know that they are subject to strict liability when they use the services of a prostitute? If there is to be a campaign, that funding would be better channelled elsewhere. Men do not know what the law is now when they pay for sexual services, and I do not believe that they will know should the Bill be enacted.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

If the hon. Lady had been here for the extensive debate that we had on the clause on Thursday, she would have known that that matter was dealt with by the Minister.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

The hon. Lady would accept that I was here last Thursday. She talks about the evidence in the Home Office review, but the academic evidence—if something is published and peer-reviewed it is evidence, otherwise it is opinion, which is valuable but different from evidence—is not in the Home Office review. In so far as it exists, there is a review of that academic evidence that has not even been published yet, let alone at the time the review was published, so would the hon. Lady accept that in strict terms the evidence is not there on either side in the Home Office review?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

I thought the hon. Gentleman might make that point. A great deal of the academic evidence is referred to in the report. My point is that it explains to some extent the logic behind the Government’s thinking on why they opted for reducing the demand for the prostitution services of a woman who had been trafficked.

If we are serious about reducing demand, it is essential to make the purchasers of prostitution services responsible for their actions. The critical point is vigilance and circumspection about the women who are involved. The best way for purchasers of ensuring that they do not fall foul of the legislation is to either not use the services of prostitutes, or to significantly reduce that risk by being very careful, and perhaps using prostitutes who are in a collective or another setting where women are clearly not being controlled for gain, and where some aspects of women’s safety can be guaranteed.

This deals very effectively with the criticism from the English Collective of Prostitutes. Useful criticisms were raised on its behalf by the GMB, but the union and the English collective have taken their eye off the policy direction in the clause, which is to try to reduce the number of women who are either trafficked into this country for prostitution or are forced into prostitution and controlled for gain.

The Bill will not further criminalise prostitutes, but it will criminalise the men who buy services from prostitutes who are controlled for gain—we took our eye off that particular policy focus on Thursday. It therefore is essential that we keep the strict liability clause, because if we start to alter it, we give men a number of possible defences—I am not suggesting for a minute that people should not be able to defend their actions, but we do not want to make it too complicated, have too many possible defences, or be too mealy-mouthed about it, because otherwise, the policy objective will simply be lost. The clause and the direction of the Bill can work only if we keep our eye on strict liability, because it is by making men very careful, responsible and circumspect about who they are buying services from that we will achieve reduction in demand for the services of women who are controlled for gain.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. We have been a well-mannered and polite Committee up until this point, but I am afraid that I feel obliged to put on the record the reasons for my absence on Thursday, as they were pointed out in such an ill-mannered way by the hon. Member for City of Durham.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

That is not a point for debate. The hon. Lady can contribute to the debate, but she cannot make that a point of order.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

As we have heard, both in the debate on Tuesday and this morning, there are major concerns about the general intent of the clause. Many people believe that the introduction of a strict liability offence, together with the issue of controlling someone for gain, threatens to make the situation for sex workers in this country much worse, rather than better, even though the intention of the Bill is to improve the situation. Most people who are connected with the issue out on the street feel that, whatever the intention of the Bill, it will make matters worse.

I want to go into some detail on that. To put it on the record, I know that the language used in the Bill is gender neutral, and that the intention is not to talk purely about women as sex workers who are used by men as punters or customers. None the less, throughout the entire debate on Second Reading, and so far in Committee, the only terms that have been used throughout concern women being exploited by men—women as sex workers, men as customers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell)indicated assent.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

The Minister is nodding. I know that it is the intention of the Bill, but I still want to put on record the fact that the Bill is designed to talk about all sex workers, whether or not they are exploited by any customer. Although the largest category is women being used by men, there is a fairly large category of men who sell their services to other men, and also a much smaller, but none the less existing category of men who sell services to women. I want to put on the record the fact that the Bill is intended to apply to all sex workers and customers, not exclusively to women who are used by men.

One of the points on strict liability, which has already been rehearsed, is that it may simply be unenforceable. In that case, it would be another example of a headline, grandstanding pursuit, rather than an effort to introduce measures that work in practice. We discussed a little on Second Reading—and during the evidence sessions—the fact that the policy is based on the experience in Finland, the only country in the world that has gone down the route of introducing a strict liability crime for the customers of sex workers. As far as we understand it, the example in Finland, after two to three years, is that either nobody has been prosecuted at all, or that a few prosecutions have taken place in very recent months, but we do not know with what degree of success. Considering the research done by the Government, including visits to a number of countries with different approaches, that does not seem a good argument for adopting a the strict liability approach that has caused so much concern to so many of the people involved.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

In a sense I am answering the intervention of the hon. Member for City of Durham, who asked about what the evidence is on either side. The Government are introducing a strict liability test, which might make matters worse and criminalise thousands of people. Is the onus not on the Government to provide the evidence of effectiveness, rather on than on the Opposition to prove that it does not work, given that such a test has hardly been tried anywhere?

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield 10:45 am, 10th February 2009

Absolutely. The same issue, which has been discussed a little in Committee and on Second Reading, arises with respect to the evidence for how bad the problem of sex trafficking is, for example. Likewise, the issue arises with regard to how many women are involved in prostitution—I apologise, I meant sex workers in general, including men—purely to pay for a drug habit, rather than for other reasons. The evidence in both cases, it has been argued, is quite flimsy. Certainly the figures put forward for the percentage of sex workers who are trafficked have been demolished by lots of the evidence submitted to the Committee, suggesting that the figures are grossly exaggerated.

I do not underestimate the problem. About seven years ago, a year after I was first elected, I went on a visit with UNICEF to Thailand and Laos to look at the issue of trafficked sex workers and, indeed, that of industrial slaves in some Thai factories. Children mainly came from Laos to Thailand to become sex workers, but some of them travelled on to the UK. For example, in Operation Pentameter, the biggest single category of people who were discovered as trafficked sex workers—certainly in the top six categories—came from Thailand. Some other Members of Parliament and I looked at that seven years ago with UNICEF, so I certainly understand the problem, but a lot of evidence has been submitted to the Committee to suggest that there is considerable exaggeration about the percentage of sex workers who are trafficked women.

We have heard the arguments. While it may be true in London that there is a higher proportion of foreign sex workers—that does not necessarily mean that they are trafficked forcibly, or controlled against their will—that may not be the case elsewhere. I went with the BBC to do a programme on a project in Derby that works with sex workers on the street, offering support. That organisation said it had never once come across a trafficked sex worker in Derby, for example. We have heard other evidence for that case from other parts of the country.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

Where is the hon. Gentleman’s argument going? Is he trying to suggest that there are not that many women or male sex workers controlled for gain and that perhaps we do not need to have legislation or, indeed, do anything to try and reduce demand for people who fall into that category?

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

I am responding to the hon. Lady’s comment that we need evidence on both sides. It is all very well saying that people who are worried about the negative impact of the Bill have not presented evidence, but they have done so, and I have given examples. The onus is on the Government, who have introduced the legislation. Almost uniformly, the people who work in this field—for example, the United Kingdom Network of Sex Work Projects, which works with 63 projects around the country—most of whom are funded by the Government, say that the measures in the Bill will have a negative, rather than a positive, impact.

If we are looking for evidence-based policy making, especially if we are going down a route that may, with the best of intentions, make things worse, not better, we ought to be looking seriously at the evidence. We have  rehearsed the argument in previous sittings that most of the evidence to which the Government refer has not even been published. How can we look at it? How can we evaluate it? How can we say that this evidence leads to that conclusion? What I was saying about Finland was that the Government went to look at New Zealand, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden, but came up with the example of Finland, which alone in the world has adopted that approach, apparently without success so far. Where is the evidence of evidence-based policy making?

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my constituency is just up the road from Derby. I have heard that women from Thailand were trafficked into my constituency, ostensibly to work in massage parlours, but actually to work in brothels. That was well documented in The Mail on Sunday, among other newspapers. I have met women who have been trafficked into the UK for one purpose and who can then slip easily into prostitution.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

I do not disagree with that—the hon. Lady has given one piece of evidence from somewhere near Derby. I gave another piece of evidence from a sex workers project based in the centre of Derby, which said that it had never once come across a sex worker who had been trafficked into this country. There is differing evidence, and we should be looking far more closely at where that evidence leads us. It should be published for proper, rigorous analysis, rather than being based on headline figures which are often grossly exaggerated.

The scale of evidence on trafficked women uncovered by Operation Pentameter, parts 1 and 2—two operations designed specifically to try to find trafficked women in the sex industry—does not lead to the conclusion, as one hon. Member suggested on Second Reading, that 80 per cent. of all prostitutes are trafficked women. There have been some wild claims and we need to look at the serious evidence, rather than introduce possibly harmful legislation on the basis of partial headlines.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

Does the hon. Gentleman also accept that it is wrong to suggest—and I am not implying that the hon. Member for City of Durham intended to suggest this—that people are not serious about tackling trafficking unless they support the offence? There are existing offences on trafficking, and on controlling prostitution under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and on kidnap and rape, all of which the Liberal Democrats support. It would be better to show whether they could be used more often, rather than taking the risk of going down this new path, which may make things worse.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

Exactly. Those are points that I shall not make at length, because I made them in a Westminster Hall debate on the issue last year. I pointed out that the experience of Operation Pentameter 1 and 2 and of the police operation in Ipswich after the series of five murders was that, if the police and the authorities put serious effort into tackling issues of coerced sex workers and trafficked sex workers, they can tackle the problem. I am not suggesting that there is not a problem, but that we should deal with it effectively.

From the overwhelming evidence from people who work in the sex industry or who work to support those in the sex industry, I do not believe that the Bill is going to improve the situation—it is going to make it worse. That is based on the evidence that I have looked at over the past seven years and on my experience of visiting Thailand, Laos, sex projects in Derby, taking evidence and going to meetings with the English Collective of Prostitutes and various other groups. The evidence shows overwhelmingly that the Bill, even though it has the best of intentions, is going to take us in the wrong direction, as it is based on fairly flimsy evidence.

The answer is to put serious police resources into tackling the issue. That was the evidence from Sweden. Some people cited Sweden as the example for criminalising all street prostitution or the purchase of sex on the street. However, it was rarely pointed out that in Sweden, as well as changing the law, the Government gave significant extra money to the police specifically to expand their policing of the problem. If the law says that something should not happen, but the police see it as a low priority among competing budgets, it will not be enforced properly. Simply enacting the Bill does not mean that any of its provisions will be enforced any better than the existing provisions that say that sex trafficking is totally illegal.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

I asked where the argument was going. The hon. Gentleman has not covered the fact that the “controlled for gain” category is not only about trafficked women. Does he accept that this is a different policy approach and instrument from anything we have had in the past. It is about trying to reduce demand and trying to take the focus off women and criminalisation and putting it on people who purchase prostitution services and who are cavalier at best about the situation that has led women to offer those services in the first place. Finally, it has not been a universal condemnation from those organisations representing prostitutes; the criticism has mostly come from one aspect of prostitution services. If the hon. Gentleman is going to cite evidence, he should quote the whole evidence.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

The overwhelming weight of evidence received by the Committee, both in our evidence sessions and in written submissions, is about the negative impact of the Bill. We took evidence from the POPPY project and another organisation that said that they totally support of the Bill. However, the UKNSP comprises 63 projects across the UK, all of which said that the Bill will have the reverse effect of what was intended. That is an overwhelming ratio of 63:2. I do not dispute that that is a radical statement of intent, but I do dispute whether it will achieve what it wants or whether it will make things much worse.

Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge

The overwhelming evidence that we have heard supports what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but a lot of evidence did not come forward at the time. I am sure that we have all received the same briefing from CAREChristian Action Research and Education—and Beyond the Streets, a collaborative network that covers 50 grassroots organisations and outreach projects. What it says is the complete opposite of the evidence to which the hon. Gentleman is referring. Yes, we have received a lot of evidence, but it was all one way and was deficient in some areas.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

That comment illustrates one of my earlier points and one made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. If a systematic review of the evidence has led the Government down the path to a radical statement of intention, which might, or might not, work, and may make the situation worse, that evidence should have been published so that we could look at it properly. Instead, we receive assertions from the Government that they have looked at the evidence and that it leads them in such a direction. However, they have not published the systematic evidence on which they say the provision is based. That is no way in which to proceed with a major change in the law that introduces a strict liability offence.

I shall outline the problems. Much of the argument has come from people who submitted evidence saying that the strict liability offence will be unenforceable. On 9 December 2008, Commander Gibson from the Metropolitan police said that it is going to be

“very difficult to enforce”.

That is from the horse’s mouth: the new law—the radical statement of intent—will be difficult to enforce. The evidence in respect of pursuing sex work and prostitution is that the law could be difficult to enforce, but it could be done if the police have the incentive and resources to do it—as with Pentameter 1 and 2 and the Ipswich project, which involved a lot of work by the local authorities and social services.

The lesson overall has always been that, simply telling sex workers that they should not do it or that it is really a shame that they do it and why do they not do something else will not work unless resources are put in from social services, housing, drug rehab and policing to help them move away from that lifestyle. The majority of them do not want that lifestyle, but they see no alternative, and the police are saying that the new strict liability law will be difficult to enforce.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Will the hon. Gentleman quote what the police officer said? Did the officer say that it was not enforceable because of the element of status or for some other reason? What were his actual words? I want to know exactly what he said.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

Commander Gibson’s actual words were that it was going to be

“very difficult to enforce”.

People on the other side of the fence such as lawyers, the Bar Council, Justice and other groups have said that, while the police fear that the law will be difficult to enforce on the streets, they consider that it will be difficult to enforce and get convictions in court. Magistrates have said that it will be difficult to get convictions in court because it is a case of strict liability. Let us suppose that the customer, male or female, has asked the sex worker, male or female, whether they have been trafficked or controlled against their will. The sex worker reassures them and says, “No.” However, if that is not true, the customer is still liable. It will be hard to get a magistrate—or a jury, if the matter went to a higher court—to convict on such a flimsy basis. A commander in the Metropolitan police, the Bar Council and others are saying that such a law will be difficult to enforce.  The experience in Finland of two and a half years also implies that it is pretty hard to obtain a prosecution, let alone make it stick.

Photo of Julie Kirkbride Julie Kirkbride Conservative, Bromsgrove

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s argument carefully, as the issue is difficult. To be absolutely clear, is he saying that even though an offence has been committed magistrates will not want to convict because they do not believe it is fair? Is that the import of what he is saying?

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield 11:00 am, 10th February 2009

Yes, that is the implication of what magistrates I have talked to are saying. They are the first line of defence—often, a £1,000 fine for such an offence will not reach a higher court, where a jury would be involved. Juries would certainly take that line, as they do with many crimes, applying common sense and justice. Magistrates to whom I have spoken to say that they would need quite a bit of convincing to destroy someone’s reputation and so on, but also to fine them £1,000 and give them a criminal conviction for a strict liability offence. If someone says, “I took every possible step to ascertain that this person was not trafficked and not controlled against their will. They assured me of that. I could not see any issue there at all. There was no evidence that they were frightened, coerced or locked up”, but it later turns out that that person was trafficked, the strict liability test comes in and the magistrate will have to find them guilty on that basis. Naturally, magistrates will be reluctant to do so.

Liberty said that “the offence” under clause 13

“is drafted extremely broadly and applies regardless of whether the accused knew that any of the prostitute’s activities were intentionally controlled for gain...What ‘controlled for gain’ means is also very broad, encompassing any activity controlled...in the expectation of gain for anyone. Presumably this would cover the owner of a brothel.”

We have heard the argument that the whole thing is drafted so broadly that it might make things much worse—the clause is unclear about who is involved and who is not. Some Government Members immediately pull a face at any mention of the English Collective of Prostitutes but, at the meetings that I have been to, the organisation and the sex workers with them seem to be rational and intelligent, putting forward rational arguments. The ECP has argued that there is already an effect, using the example of a raid on 18 December, just a few weeks ago, in Soho. Three police officers from Charing Cross clubs and vice unit visited a flat on Romilly street and issued a written notice against a Miss Tracey Ramsey, who works as a receptionist there. They intended to charge her with “controlling prostitution for gain”. The ECP says that Soho is one of the safest places in the UK for women in the sex industry to work:

“As a receptionist, Ms Ramsey is women’s first line of defence against violent attacks and exploitation.”

If the police are already, under existing law or in preparation for the new law, charging a receptionist with control for gain and threatening to close down a flat or small brothel where women are operating safely off the streets, what will happen if the Government introduce their rather misguided legislation? Far from helping sex workers, it will have quite the reverse effect, making it much more difficult for them to operate safely.

That is supported by support groups. The United Kingdom Network of Sex Work Projects says:

“There is no commonly-understood definition of ‘controlled for gain’ and it is unclear how ‘controlled for gain’ would be interpreted by magistrates. It is unreasonable to expect clients to discern a condition that is unclear, sometimes even to sex workers themselves, and which may be deliberately concealed. A strict liability offence is therefore unjust.”

If we look at a parallel example, Scotland introduced legislation against kerb crawling. The Scottish Prostitutes Education Project—another outreach group working on the streets with sex workers—said at a meeting on 13 January, just a few weeks ago, that the effect of the legislation had been the absolute reverse of what the Scottish Government had expected and intended when they introduced it. Far from helping sex workers, it was making things much worse. SCOT-PEP said:

“Women are working in isolation, which is more dangerous for them...There aren’t as many clients around but the ones who are around are the dangerous ones...The number of women on the streets has not decreased significantly”.

The number of clients had decreased, but the clients who are on the streets now are the more dangerous ones

“who don’t care if they get a conviction. They’re the men prepared to rape and beat...There’s far more violence now, and far more regular violence...The women are in more danger...Women do this to earn money, whether it be for drugs or to support their families and they’ll keep doing it...Outsiders think prostitution is horrible and you couldn’t do anything to make it worse”.

However, SCOT-PEP said, the legislation “has made things worse”. That was not the intention, but it has made things worse—more dangerous, more difficult, and impossible to get help and advice to the women working out on the street. The danger highlighted by that parallel example is that we will get exactly the same from the legislation proposed by the Government.

Regarding the Swedish example, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) said in discussions on a previous Bill:

“I am also concerned that criminalising all sex buyers could force some of those involved in selling sex to continue to do so but to adopt more covert practices.”

That is what we are seeing in Scotland with the kerb-crawling legislation. The hon. Gentleman went on to say:

“That would drive it underground and create a more hidden sex market, making it increasingly difficult for support services and enforcement agencies to identify and make contact with those individuals. That could expose them to heightened violence, exploitation and unsafe sexual practice.”——[Official Report, Criminal Justice and Immigration Public Bill Committee, 27 November 2007; c. 567-68.]

If the hon. Gentleman thought that that was a danger of the Swedish example, and if SCOT-PEP says that that is the result of the Scottish example, will Ministers explain why they are confident that that will not be an indirect, unforeseen consequence of the Bill which, as we have heard, is a radical shift in British law and a radical leap into the dark, based on the experience of one country, Finland, where so far it clearly has not worked?

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I am grateful to hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, for reminding us of the importance of looking at the policy objectives of this particular measure. Described rightly by the hon. Member for Chesterfield as a radical  approach, the clause amends the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and introduces a new offence of paying for the sexual services of a prostitute who is controlled for another person’s gain.

Bearing in mind that we had an extensive debate on Thursday on the amendments to the clause, I shall give a brief background to explain how we have arrived at the current position. Some of the views that were expressed imply that the policy had somehow arrived on the back of an envelope with neither the support nor the evidence necessary to back it up. On the contrary: the Government published a co-ordinated prostitution strategy in January 2006, which made it clear that their policy was to address demand for prostitution by targeting those who pay for sex, and focusing on those areas where abuse and exploitation are commonplace. We built on that in January 2008 with the demand review, which explored the legislative and non-legislative options available as well as learning from the experiences of other countries, such as—as had been mentioned—Sweden and the Netherlands.

The review involved key stakeholders and practitioners, including the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and organisations supporting individuals involved in prostitution, and a range of views were expressed. It also included an assessment of relevant academic research, which was fully referenced, an audit of enforcement and prosecution practice in England and Wales to identify best practice, an independent evaluation of approaches to tackling demand in nine other countries and ministerial visits to Sweden and the Netherlands to learn more.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

Do either of the two stages that the Minister mentioned— the 2006 publication of the policy strategy and the launch in January 2008 of the review—involve a specific consultation on the strict liability offence that we are discussing? He went on to say that the evidence in the review was fully referenced. Does that mean that when the review is finally published, we will be able to look at the references section of the article? Does “fully referenced” mean that the mere mortals among us who have not seen the review will be allowed to see it at some point before the Bill becomes law?

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

The review has been published, and it references the contributions that were taken into consideration. I think what the hon. Gentleman is talking about is the additional—for want of a better term—consultation. We are currently looking at that short consultation. He will agree that we do not want to release into the public domain information that has not been properly looked at or dealt with according to the rules that should apply in such circumstances. In addition, we did not say to the contributors to that particular part of the consultation that we would make their views public. However, we will announce a date in the near future.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

There is some confusion. I accept that the review says with a few footnotes what came from where. But the review talks about another review by the university of Huddersfield of the evidence, and I assume that that is not merely opinion and submissions, but a proper review of the academic evidence and published literature. Has that been published? I am not talking about  consultation responses, but I would be grateful if he will clarify what consultation there has been to date on that offence.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

So that we can make progress, I will furnish the hon. Gentleman with the information that he seeks on the academic basis for the work that we are doing.

The Government made it clear at an early stage that we were looking at the demand side as opposed to the supply side of prostitution, and it became clear that we were looking at strict liability. We have not hidden our intention to make progress on that, and I can explain how we have arrived at strict liability rather than something else.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire made a very good point about the way in which the Committee has been conducted, and I fully endorse what she has said. I fear, however, that that consensus of approach, if not of opinion, was in danger of breaking down with the comments of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and his colleague the hon. Member for Chesterfield.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon talked about existing offences on trafficking being able to deal with the problem. The reality is that we have done a great deal on trafficking. To some extent, we are world leaders on that matter. But let me give the hon. Gentleman an example of where that approach could lead if we are not careful. Imagine a raid, like Pentameter, on a brothel where women have been trafficked for sex and the traffickers are in the brothel. The women are in the brothel and so are the punters who are visiting to buy sex. We know what would happen to the traffickers. If they were caught, prosecuted and convicted, they would face lengthy prison sentences. We know what would happen to the women, because we have signed up to the convention that means we now have a national referral mechanism and they would be treated as victims. But unless we have a measure such as the one that we are proposing today, the men would walk away from that brothel and not be held to account.

Before the hon. Gentleman rises to say, “But surely the women have been exploited to the point of rape,” of course it would be appropriate if the men could be prosecuted and convicted for that. In reality the evidence is not always available, so we are left with a situation where all the people in the three parts of the story can be dealt with by existing law, except the men who go into that brothel, who disregard in many cases whether the women have been trafficked or are being controlled for gain, but nevertheless purchase sex from them. The measure that we are proposing intends to fill that gap.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I accept that there is a strong argument that that gap should be filled. I just urge the Minister to remember that in our previous debate it was suggested by those on both Opposition Front Benches that a non-strict liability offence with objective recklessness would actually allow him to punish the people who are guilty of something equivalent to rape with more than a £1,000 fine. That has enormous merits, deals with all the concerns that we have just heard around strict liability, and provides a penalty to match the crime. That is what we urge him to consider.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I have agreed to look at some of the points that were raised on the amendments to the clause in the previous debate. We are confident that strict liability is necessary because, as I have explained, there is a gap that needs to be filled. The hon. Gentleman says that he agrees with us in that regard. But there is also a very strong deterrent message that we need to send. If someone has purchased and used the services of a prostitute who has been controlled for gain or, heaven forbid, has been trafficked, and that someone says that they did not know, that is no excuse in those circumstances. We should not have to furnish the evidence that the hon. Gentleman is looking for to prove all the points that he raised in our previous discussions. We need to send out a strong message to men that such behaviour is not acceptable.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

The principle of English law for centuries has supposedly been that one is innocent until proven guilty. The Minister wants to say that it is too difficult to prove people guilty, so we will find people guilty without any evidence. Why not go the whole hog, which is what the Government were partly considering with the Swedish law? But even that is a halfway house. Why not just say that the purchase of sex and the sale of sex are illegal? The Government seem to be getting to that by a roundabout route, by saying, “That is a legal activity, but we will find you guilty even though there is no evidence to show that the sex worker you were with was trafficked or coerced.”

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 11:15 am, 10th February 2009

These are part of the remarks that I want to go on to, but I shall say something about the principles of English law that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. I want to refer to his comments where we part company, to a large extent. I cannot understand a system of criminal law that does not do everything that it can to tackle the exploitation of women, or men, who are put into these circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman got into a debate with himself, and others, around the number of trafficked women who are brought to this country for sexual exploitation. On the evidence that we have, most of the women who are trafficked into the country are brought here for sexual exploitation. He wanted to talk about numbers, but he said that his understanding—from his experiences and conversations with organised groups, which I do not discount—is that the number of sex workers who have been trafficked are exaggerated. He referred to the situation in Derby. It was pointed out in the evidence sessions that many of the people we are talking about are probably working on the streets of London, rather than in his, or my, constituency.

However, the point was also made that just because a person is a foreign prostitute does not mean that they are trafficked, and the hon. Gentleman repeated that. This is not just about trafficked women—and possibly men—it is about people who are controlled for gain. However, it is wrong to traffic women into this country for sexual exploitation whether the figure is 4,000 or 40,000. It is still wrong and it is still this Parliament’s obligation to do everything that it can to protect those women. It is not the only thing that we will be doing to tackle prostitution, but our view is that this strict liability is appropriate and proportionate.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

We fear, along with most of the organisations working in the field and many legal organisations, that what is proposed will end up making things worse for sex workers. The fact that we disagree on the mechanism does not alter the fact that we agree just as much as the Minister that anyone involved in exploiting sex workers in this way should be punished by the full weight of the law. However, one has to find people guilty first.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

This is a discussion that my later comments will address. I want to make some progress on this point and I will come back to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks if I do not answer them directly. Part of the preparation for this measure was to visit other countries and look at their approaches. My hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing visited the Netherlands, where prostitution is regulated through a system of licensed brothels. He found that that regulation had not ended violence against prostitutes, it had not reduced trafficking and it had not reduced the involvement of organised crime in prostitution.

The review therefore concluded that criminal justice measures were the most effective way of protecting those involved in prostitution, who are vulnerable to exploitation. We also considered the option of criminalising payment for sex in all circumstances. We concluded that that was not the right approach. Instead, we concluded that measures should be targeted at reducing areas of the sex market involving the most vulnerable—namely those who have been trafficked, are being exploited, or are involved in street prostitution, who are mainly women

In answer to the hon. Member for Chesterfield’s point about Finland, we looked at the Finnish example. He said that he was not sure whether there had been any prosecutions there, but I can tell him that there have been. He then went on to make the point about the difficulty of prosecution and quoted, several times, the police view that it would be difficult. I accept that it will be difficult; we have never said that it would not be difficult. I even accept that it will be very difficult—we have never said anything else. However, it does not mean that we should not try, through this measure, to do everything that we can just because it is difficult.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Does the Minister accept that the objective of licensing brothels in the Netherlands was not to reduce trafficking, which is seen as an entirely separate problem? The purpose of licensing brothels in the Netherlands was to keep a control of health care, illness, needle use and exchange, and to get outreach programmes to the brothels and for the Government to keep a better hold on what was happening. It was never intended to reduce trafficking and the Minister cannot use that as a justification for what he is saying.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I did not say that that was the purpose of the measures introduced by the Dutch. I said that their scheme has not had an effect on those areas about which we are most concerned in this particular measure. A strict liability provision should not preclude our doing everything that we can to keep women safe in other regards and to attend to their health needs. We should do everything that we can not only to have exit strategies but to ensure that there are resources to pay for them. I do not necessarily disagree with the hon.  Lady; the point that I was making is that the route that the Netherlands has taken has not addressed the issues to which we have given particular importance in our demand review and the measures that we are introducing.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

Let me move on, if I may. I will allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene in a second. I want to go back to the timeline.

In November 2008, the review was published, with a key recommendation that a new offence be introduced to target those who pay for sex with controlled prostitutes. There are already offences for trafficking and controlling prostitution for gain, but the review concluded that in order to tackle exploitation and abuse, legislation should go further and address the source of the problem: the sex buyer who creates the demand for prostitution.

I want to put it on the record for those concerned about the extent and extant of the measure that we understand that some people freely choose to sell sex. However, we also know that many involved in prostitution—both women and men—have little choice over their involvement and would leave prostitution if they could. Our priority must be to protect those people, the victims of exploitation and abuse.

There is an issue about exit strategies. We accept that resource issues are involved. Of course it is about having services on the ground in the locality and working with local providers to commission services, but we accept that there may be resource implications. I give the commitment that we are considering them.

Clause 13 will make it a criminal offence to make or promise payment for the sexual services of a prostitute if any of that prostitute’s activities relating to the provision of those services are intentionally controlled for gain by a third person. The offence will be committed even if the sexual services are provided abroad, but the payment or promise of payment must be made in this country.

Those who pay for sex choose to do so. In doing so, whether they know it or not, they help contribute to the exploitation linked to prostitution. It should not—I repeat, it should not—be an excuse to say “I didn’t know the prostitute was being controlled.” Proposed new subsection (2)(b) therefore provides that the new offence will be one of strict liability, which will mean that a person is guilty regardless of whether they knew that a prostitute was controlled for gain.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

Can I take the Minister back to the point at which I sought to intervene? On the Dutch position, would it not be a sensible option to have licensed brothels that are essentially legal? That way, all the health protection work that he wants could be done, and it could be ensured that no one was exploited or controlled for gain under his definition. Then a strict liability offence could be created for anyone who actively chose not to use the legalised service. That would be another option. Has he considered it, and if so, why did he reject it? Also—I think that this is the third time that I have asked—has he consulted, formally or informally, on the new offence?

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

We considered all the options. As part of that consideration, we included the legalisation of prostitution and, indeed, of brothels. However, the hon. Gentleman must accept that in coming to a decision, we knew that people would look at our approach to prostitution for the message that it sends out. We would be sending mixed messages if we went down the route of legalising prostitution or brothels.

The hon. Gentleman seems to be holding up the Dutch example as a model for us to follow. Let me tell him that the Dutch are reviewing their legislation in that regard. They are not content that it is doing what they want it to do. Therefore, I would caution him against that. They are also, I understand, looking at closing down some brothels, probably for the reasons that I cited earlier. I intend to come back to his earlier point.

Let me make a point about men who visit brothels, and believe or have evidence that the prostitute is trafficked or controlled for gain, and go on to inform the authorities. Much has been made of that, almost as an alternative to the measure that we are bringing forward. We asked officials in the Home Office to find some evidence, other than anecdotal. I have talked to prostitutes who have told me that that happens—they work for an agency and the agency is told by a client that a prostitute that they have visited did not look well, or looked stressed out, and is asked whether there is something going on. I do not dispute that there may be some examples of that, but it cannot be the sole method of tackling the problem. We are talking about relatively few in number, while we may well be talking about a significantly higher number of people who are controlled for gain or who might have been trafficked into this country. Those who visit brothels can already give such information anonymously through Crimestoppers, but actual evidence of men who have done that is difficult to find, so it can hardly be an alternative that could tackle the scale of the problem that we believe needs to be tackled. Although we welcome steps to facilitate such action, it is not a real alternative to the strict liability clause.

The offence recognises that exploitation connected to prostitution goes wider than just trafficking. “Controlled”, as used in proposed new subsection (3) in clause 13, is based on the existing offence of controlling prostitution for gain under section 53 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The term will cover those who have been forced, compelled or directed to provide sexual services for another’s gain, whether such control was exerted by people traffickers or by others such as violent or coercive pimps. Proposed new subsection (4) provides that the maximum penalty for this offence is a level 3 fine, which is currently £1,000.

Briefly, I shall say something about enforcement, because I understand the concerns raised. We recognise the need for the police to prioritise, and we want them to continue disrupting the activities of those involved in trafficking or coercing people into prostitution. In passing, on two occasions the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon suggested that I had claimed that that would and should be a low priority for the police. It is not my job as a Minister to tell chief constables what their priority should be in an area. How they deploy their resources is a matter for them. Apart from it not being up to me to tell them, I have no recollection of giving that impression at all.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The Minister is on to an important point about the discretion that chief constables should have. For clarity, are there are any Home Office targets, statutory or non-statutory, that are set for detection of sexual offences, including the new offence in the Bill?

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

The hon. Gentleman knows that we are moving away from a targeted approach, apart from with the confidence that people have in their local police. If he is asking how that refers to the targets that we would have now, and what would be intended, may I come back to him? He raised an important point, but the general point concerns the ability of chief police officers to decide on the priorities in their areas. Nevertheless, if that is the law, it is the law.

We believe that it is right that the offence is used to punish those who paid for sex with someone controlled for gain and that it will send a deterrent message to others that may potentially do so. We shall work with the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure that the offence is enforced and implemented as effectively as possible, and that it is used in a way that most effectively targets those who take advantage of the most vulnerable persons involved in prostitution.

Briefly, I want to mention another point of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon from our deliberations on Thursday, about making matters worse and the potential for blackmail. He raised a serious point, but people who use prostitutes currently risk blackmail in some instances. Using prostitutes is not something that a significant section of the population would regard as acceptable or appropriate. I take into account his point about a new offence, but I do not think that it would dramatically increase the opportunity for blackmailers to become involved. However, there is always potential for that when punters use prostitutes.

The point raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire about education is an important one: whether the offence would be drawn to the attention of punters, and the need for education and awareness campaigns. The campaign to raise awareness among potential sex buyers of the extent and nature of trafficking is a specific recommendation in the tackling the demand for prostitution review, which will support the coming into force of the new offence in the Bill, so I can assure her that we will be doing everything that we can—although there may be some who would plough on regardless, and would not be deterred even if we furnish them with the evidence.

The hon. Lady, together with a number of other people, also raised the question of whether the clause will make matters worse by driving prostitution further underground. Our priority is to protect the most vulnerable people involved in prostitution, who are already the victims of offences such as being controlled for gain or trafficked. Those responsible for controlling the people will already be taking steps to ensure that they will be beyond the reach of the law. That makes it difficult to prosecute, but as I have said, being difficult does not mean that we should not do it. We are talking about some of the most vulnerable people, exploited in some of the most horrible ways in some of the darkest places. I cannot see how the strict liability clause will make that  situation worse; in fact, I can see ways in which the clause will improve it. So driving prostitution further underground is not an intention, and we do not believe that that will be an effect.

In our earlier deliberations, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon raised concerns about women’s safety. Improving the safety of those involved in prostitution—voluntarily or otherwise—is fundamental to what we are trying to do. By reducing the demand for prostitutes who are controlled for gain, we are aiming to improve the safety of all prostitutes. But in the present context, it is important to reiterate that the development of the measures tackling demand is part of a broader strategy, which sets a comprehensive approach to dealing with the problems associated with prostitution, including measures to improve the safety of those involved in that.

Prosecutions are already brought against those controlling prostitutes for gain, and in such cases, the police would be able to bring charges against those who have been found to have paid for sex with prostitutes who, at the time, were being controlled. It is right that the law should be extended to ensure that those who play their part in sexual exploitation—by contributing to the demand—face criminal sanctions.

As one would expect, I have discussed at length the Bill and the whole process that has been undertaken to get us to this point with the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, and we are of one mind on the matter. I pay tribute to him for the way that, having started the process, he has pursued the matter and brought it to the present stage; nobody has done more than him in that regard.

The measure is important, and people will look back on it as a major stepping stone in social reform. From my previous experience as a Whip, I know that sometimes it is difficult to get Members to serve on Committees because they have to spend time on other things. [Interruption.] I am delighted to hear the hon. Member for West Chelmsford, the Opposition Whip, say that he had no trouble in doing that. I am not talking about this particular Bill, but about others, and Bills in general, that are less interesting and important than the one that we are dealing with.

I have served on a number of Public Bill Committees, and sometimes it is a case of getting through a Bill and seeing what effect it will have out there, but in one’s own mind, some Bills may seem more important than others. I cannot remember working on a Bill that is more important than this one. People who are serving on this Committee will look back on the measure in the future, when strict liability is working, when we would have reduced the demand for prostitution, helped women out of prostitution and helped to tackle some of the worst examples of exploitation and trafficking, and be proud of the work that they have done on the Bill.

We will not always agree—we do not agree on clause 13, in some cases—but I think that time will show that the measure is extraordinarily important. The exploitation linked to prostitution, which it is designed to end, destroys lives and should not be tolerated. The clause is meant to protect the victims of prostitution, but it will do something else. It is meant to send out a clear message to those who would pay for sex with someone controlled for gain that they will be held accountable for their actions. That is what it is about: holding people  accountable for their actions who play a part in the vile exploitation of some of the most vulnerable women. That is why I hope that hon. Members will support clause 13. I commend it to the Committee.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation 11:30 am, 10th February 2009

The Committee has debated the clause at great length, and I am of the opinion that we have now considered it fully enough to move to a vote.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. Am I able to respond? I do not remember the rules, but I thought that I would be in a position to respond and, having raised the matter in the debate initially and heard the Government’s response, explain why we wish to press the clause to a vote. Is that not how it works on clause stand part?

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

You did not move that the clause stand part of the Bill. You have had an opportunity to put your views clearly on the record. All Committee members have heard them and will take them into account when deciding whether the clause should stand part of the Bill. I intend now to move to the vote.

Question put forthwith (Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89), That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 2.

Division number 3 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 13

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 2 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 13ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.