Clause 18

– in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 10th February 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Soliciting: England and Wales

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

I beg to move amendment 25, in clause 18, page 17, line 12, at end insert

‘and the platform, concourse or any part of a railway station shall be considered to a be public place for the purposes of this section.’.

This is a testing amendment to enable us to understand clearly what the Government mean by “public place”. The clause creates an offence of soliciting a person for sexual services as a prostitute in a

“vehicle in a street or public place.”

From my discussions with the British Transport police and having been out on patrol with them on several occasions, I have learned that they have always sought to make a distinction whereby the area around a station is a private place, not a public place. Although the amendment may seen a little obtuse, highlighting as it does a station, the area around a station or a concourse, it was tabled to test the Government’s thinking and to find out what they mean by “a public place”. Do they envisage that the phrase will cover such areas?

It is not inconceivable that in stations that are unmanned or perhaps unlit in the late evening, there might be the potential for soliciting to take place, but I want to understand clearly the Government’s intention and whether they accept that a distinction can be drawn, with an area of a station being a private place not a public place, and the extent to which that phrase is intended to capture both types of area. That point has been made to me by the British Transport police, so I thought that it was appropriate to test the wording and find out the Government’s intentions.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I have nothing to say about the amendment but, to save time, I thought that I might ask my one question about the clause now. It will not be a surprise  to the Minister to know that my concern about clamping down on soliciting in the way described arises from the fact that the act of soliciting will be likely to take place in more secluded areas further away from the police. In my view and the view of sex workers, those who represent them and the Safety First coalition, that will create more dangers than the status quo. Are the Government aware of the impact of pushing soliciting and loitering further into the shadows, given the problem with the small minority of potentially violent punters who would not object to that deepening darkness around the action of soliciting?

I accept that soliciting can be a nuisance in residential areas, but I am putting the other side of the argument. My other problem is that, wherever the action takes place and if soliciting is clamped down on, negotiations have to take place extremely quickly. The prostitute cannot hang around and engage in a lengthy discussion through a car window about how, what, where and who, but essentially has to jump in furtively. She will therefore be unable to take the protective measures and the risk assessment—strange term though that may be—that she otherwise would. That is what prostitutes are telling me and, I suspect, other members of the Committee. It is not clear that the Government have recognised such problems, in the absence of proper consultation on this and other clauses.

In the measures on kerb crawling, the clause could have side effects that will endanger women. I do not for one moment fail to recognise that kerb crawling is a nuisance in public areas and that a balance must be struck, but I need reassurance from the Government that they have considered such matters. If there is evidence that street prostitutes will come to more harm as a result of the measure, I hope that the Government will review whether it is wise to bring in such a law rather than enable the police to see more clearly what is going on and prostitutes to have the protection of each other in a lit—not dark—area.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I shall use my discretion, at the request of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, because if we do not have to go through the process of a clause stand debate, we shall make up time, which will be helpful to the Committee.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 4:30 pm, 10th February 2009

Amendment 25 shows that the hon. Member for Hornchurch and I approach this subject from completely different directions. I wonder why he has tabled it, and he wonders why we have left out such a measure. I am now a little clearer about that, but we believe that the amendment is unnecessary because a court would consider any public area of a railway station to be a public place. I am intrigued by the information that he brought to the Committee from his experience of going out with the transport police, and I shall certainly consider it because, if what he says is the case, we would need to do something about it.

Anyone caught soliciting on a platform, concourse or other public area would be covered by the offence, but the other reason why we resist the amendment is that, if we put in the Bill that a railway station should be considered a public place, that might have the unintended effect of excluding railway stations from being considered  public places under existing legislation. It is a complicated matter and not as simple as it might seem. Given my commitment to reconsider the matter, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see fit to withdraw the amendment.

To respond to the remarks of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, a secluded place would still be a public place. I understand his argument about the safety of women, and I stressed particularly in this morning’s deliberations that the safety of women is the central reason for the proposals and that we certainly do not want unintended consequences. Unfortunately, however, men take women from the streets to secluded places now—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Fifteen minutes have passed, so we may resume our deliberations. The Minister was on his feet and about to conclude his remarks.

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

Thank you, Sir Nicholas. You preface my rising with a comment most times. I am beginning to get the hint.

I was responding to the contention of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that the soliciting offence runs the risk of driving the practice to more secluded areas, if the police clamp down on kerb crawling. There is evidence that such measures can help to reduce street prostitution rather than merely displace it. Although there is not time for this debate, the logical conclusion of his remarks is that if we did not have a kerb crawling offence, the situation would be much better. However, we think that the offence is necessary to tackle demand for prostitution and to reduce street prostitution in particular. With those remarks, I hope that the hon. Member for Hornchurch will withdraw the amendment.

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

I am grateful for the Minister’s comments. I hope that he now has a better understanding of the purpose behind the amendment. The point made to me by the BTP is that this is a complex question. Although one might think that station areas are public, they might not be in all circumstances. The Bill needs more scrutiny to ensure that it encapsulates what the Minister and I imagine it encapsulates. That depends on the language and wording and on the byelaws. An example given to me was that possession of a knife in a station might not trigger the offence of possessing a knife in a public place. Whether that is the case needs careful examination. On the basis of the Minister’s assurance that he will look at this issue in more detail, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.