Clause 20

– in a Public Bill Committee at 4:47 pm on 10th February 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Closure orders

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

May I say, Sir Nicholas, that although your voice might be slightly more hoarse than normal, it remains a very distinguished one here in Parliament and this Committee? I am sure that I speak for all Members on both sides of the Committee.

Clause 20 is important. It and schedule 2 insert a new provision in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 granting the courts the power to close temporarily

“premises used for activities related to certain sexual offences”.

A closure notice can be served by the police preventing anyone from entering or remaining on said premises, unless they regularly reside in or own the premises, until a magistrates court decides whether to make a closure order. If the court is satisfied that the relevant conditions have been met, it can make a closure order for up to three months. An application can be made to extend the closure order, but the total period for which an order has effect cannot exceed six months. That is the nub of the clause.

I know that all of us—not least you, Sir Nicholas—wish to make progress, but I have one very simple question: has the Minister made any estimate of the number of establishments that could be the subject of a closure, and if so what evidence does he have to support it? Before he shakes his head—he might wonder how that can possibly be known—I should add that the point is worth exploring, because it goes to the heart of the interests of many of the vulnerable people, overwhelmingly women, who might be affected by the clause, no matter how well intentioned.

This question is one that we have heard before—it is almost a leitmotif in our discussions of this part of the Bill. Will vulnerable women be driven underground? In other words, will they be moved from a place of relative safety—perhaps a brothel with some semblance of oversight—out on to the streets and into places with no oversight of any description? In shorthand, will the abuse, degradation and coercion of such women, some of them trafficked, be shoved underground? That is the simple question that I pose to the Minister. There is no question that the clause is well intentioned. It is a tough measure that, on the face of it, will clamp down on criminality; that is the result that we all want. However, has much thought been given to the question whether such activity will be driven underground, resulting in some of these vulnerable women having an even harder time of it?

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

I shall be brief, because I know that we are running out of time, but I want to pick up on the point just made. There is no such evidence, because we have not passed any legislation like this before that would inform us of what the consequences will be. One can only guess, assume and speak to those working in this field, not as prostitutes, but as outreach workers, social workers and nurses.

The big concern is that girls working as prostitutes will not stop working just because their brothel is closed down. That is the place where they are warm, where they work in relative safety and away from the view of residents and people on the streets, including children. They work there in seclusion almost; their business is kept indoors and behind closed doors. However, if their brothel is closed down, the girls will not stop working. They will go straight back out on the streets, but it will not just be the streets; it will also be wasteland, cars and secluded areas. I have heard it said that the girls will go “underground”. They will go on to waste ground. They will go on to the streets. The girls who were protected by being indoors and out of the public eye will suddenly be at risk of being prosecuted for loitering. Whereas before they were not criminalised, so that if they wanted to remove themselves from prostitution and go into another form of work, they could do so, now, as a result of being turfed out on to the streets, they will be more likely to have a criminal record around their neck. They will be more exposed and more liable to being prosecuted than they were before.

There are issues of safety. We all said after the events in Ipswich, “This will never happen again; it must not happen again.” I cannot see how anyone can say that when we are about to close down many brothels and put the girls into dangerous situations. They do not need prosecuting; they need help and assistance. If they want to leave prostitution, we need to provide a framework of assistance to get them out of that line of work. We do not need to put them in danger. Whatever the Minister says in his comeback, there is no evidence to show the results of this measure; we can only guess. However, the events in Ipswich, so fresh in our minds, show us that putting the girls out on the streets can only mean that they will be in danger.

A number of other points have been raised with me by the English Collective of Prostitutes, the Royal College of Nursing and the Safety First coalition. We heard someone say that the overwhelming body of evidence is against a particular argument. The RCN—I will admit that I was a member of the RCN, so I listen to what it has to say—is hugely opposed to closure orders. At least when the girls are working in brothels, they are easier for the outreach workers to get to; they are easier to make contact with. Even simple things, such as telephoning them and making appointments to see them, are easier to do when the workers know where they are than when the girls are on the streets.

The only advantage to the measure that I imagine the Government perceive is that it will crack down on those who are controlling for gain and on trafficking. As I said, the aims are laudable, but it is like a using a big hammer to smash a very small nut. There will also be many girls back out on the streets who have not been trafficked and are not being controlled for gain. There will be girls out on the streets who are there because they want to do that work, not just those who were driven into it as a result of need or drug abuse.

The girls will be on the streets, but they are not there at the moment. In the present difficult economic circumstances, young girls who see the girls working on the streets may be tempted to follow that line of work, whereas before—when the girls were not so visible—it would not have come to their attention so much. This is almost a recruitment campaign—turning the girls out  on the streets, where other vulnerable young girls can see them working. Residents who do not want the girls on the streets—who would prefer them to be indoors—will have them on their streets. I cannot see one argument to back closure orders that does not put the girls in danger.

If I could wave a magic wand and stop prostitution tomorrow, I would. No woman should have to sell her body to make money to live, to keep her family or to do anything else. I abhor prostitution for those women who are forced into it and do not want to be in that line of work, but by the same token those women should not be exposed to danger. I cannot see any outcome of closure orders other than the girls being put in danger.

I heard the priest from Soho at the meeting involving the English Collective of Prostitutes the other night. These were his words:

“It will not be long before I have to officiate at a funeral of one of these girls as a result of being turned out on to the streets, and when I do, I will point my finger at the Government and say, ‘This was your fault.’”

Do we really want that to be the consequence of the closure order? That could really happen.

Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge 5:00 pm, 10th February 2009

I do not recognise the description that the hon. Lady is giving. She has almost made brothels sound like homely, inviting places to go. That may be the case in the brothels that she has visited in Soho or wherever, but in Walsall or Wolverhampton and the area that I represent, we are talking about seedy places that are sometimes just as dangerous as the streets. They are sometimes in dilapidated flats on council estates. The Julia RobertsPretty Woman”, happy hooker description is not what I find when I talk to prostitutes and sexual outreach workers in my region.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

There was a brothel in a council flat in the block opposite my bedroom window in the council maisonette in which I grew up. I know exactly what they are like. I have been to the flats in Soho, and I am not saying that they are homely, comfortable places—that is not my point. They are not homely, and we would not want to live in them, but they are indoors, and the girls are off the streets. None of the girls in the brothels I visited was controlled for gain or trafficked.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Well, let us go back to the raid in December on the flats that I visited. The police went in and wanted to arrest the receptionist for “controlled for gain”. Where did the police get the words “controlled for gain” from? Was that a dummy or practice run before the Bill is enforced?

Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge

The hon. Lady does not have a monopoly on council estate upbringing—I was brought up on a council estate in Bermondsey, and I know exactly the type of area that she is talking about. Those places can be as dangerous as the streets. Women get attacked and are subject to all sorts of violent approaches. She was describing what sounded like a homely environment, but the flats I am talking about are not like that—they can be just as dangerous as the streets. I hope she accepts that.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

The hon. Lady has made that point twice, but it is not the point I am making, which is this: no one wants to see girls attacked, but if one is attacked, all the women in a flat will be out on the streets. Six girls were working out of one flat that I saw. I am not saying that it was a homely environment—frankly, it was seedy—but the girls were at least safe. They were indoors and off the streets.

I simply think that there is another way to go to achieve what the Government want to achieve, other than via closure orders. The worst-case scenario of the closure orders is not good, and I am not sure that the Government want to go there. I wonder whether there is another way to deal with the problem that does not involve closing brothels down and putting the girls out on the streets. The residents do not want it, and a lot of the girls do not want it, so what are the Government trying to achieve? The worst-case scenario is not good, and I do not think that the Government want such an outcome.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I am in something of a dilemma because some of the points that have been raised are the subject of amendments to schedule 2 that I have tabled, so I need to hold my fire until we discuss it. However, we are discussing a clause that introduces the schedule, so it is right for the Government to reflect on some of the cases in which closure orders will be used.

There is no argument, at least from me and my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield, about the use of closure orders against establishments where child prostitution takes place or where child pornography is used, which is the bulk of the reason why the orders might be used, even if the bulk of the orders will be used for something else. We also do not have an argument against using the orders against establishments where there are trafficked women or women who are being brutalised, coerced or enslaved. There is no disagreement on that, although we wonder whether there are other offences for which someone might be locked up that we could use. The question is whether, in the remaining case scenarios, the use of an order will be dangerous for a woman’s health and safety.

The key question for the Minister to answer, either now or in response to a point that I will raise when we discuss the amendments to the schedule, is that of what the Government’s attitude is to women who set up together in a profit-making organisation with a madam. That would be a consensual arrangement, even though someone would gain from it. The point has been raised before and the Minister said that he would reflect on it—I understand if he cannot respond now—but it must be dealt with.

It is important to listen to the Royal College of Nursing and NHS projects that need to keep in touch with women and can do that if the women are in an organised place. It is always wise to take the advice of the RCN, rather than picking and choosing, as I believe some have done, over when it represents the truth and when it does not. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire speaks from a sedentary position. I am not saying who that comment was directed at. However, I welcome the fact that the view of medical professionals is becoming increasingly respected in this matter, if not in others.

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

We must be aware of the risks that hon. Members are talking about, but it is worth reflecting on the kinds of establishment that would be closed under these orders. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds asked a specific question about how many establishments would be subject to the orders and how many orders would be made per year. The impact assessment, which we brought forward, gave a best estimate of between 780 and 1,200 orders. That appears to be high, but we suggest that it is the maximum possible impact; we do not think that that number of orders will be made.

The hon. Gentleman will understand why we brought such figures forward, and in my brief remarks I shall return to the point that such orders will be used in a targeted way in accordance with guidance.

Let me respond to a couple of issues that have been raised. We should be clear about the nature of the establishments that the orders are designed to tackle. The orders will be used only for prostitution and pornography offences that are particularly exploitative. That includes those involving children. The orders will give the police the opportunity to disrupt criminal activity and exploitation. We will work with the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure that the guidance reflects that, that the orders are not used disproportionately and that we minimise disruption.

I take the point about people being caught up in these closure orders. It is important for victims and vulnerable people to be identified so that the police can, as they do, link up with local authorities and community projects and ensure that appropriate support is provided. We heard from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon about a scenario in which two or more women set up together, where there is no control for gain although there is a madam. In my earlier remarks, I made it clear that we do not believe that such a situation would fall foul of this legislation. Therefore, it would not be reasonable or proportionate to impose a closure order on such premises.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire talked about women being better off—that was the phrase she used—working in these brothels. I understand what she means, but I do not agree with her. This legislation should be used proportionately in those instances where women might have been trafficked and are subject to exploitation and control for gain, or where there is child pornography or prostitution involving children. There can be no excuse for keeping such premises open, and there cannot be any reason for not using the orders and disrupting the activity of those who would continue this hideous crime.

The hon. Lady also talked about the pointing of fingers: what would happen if—she believes this to be a possible scenario under the legislation—heaven forbid, a woman was pushed out on to the streets, became the subject of horrendous violence and was even murdered. It is possible for women who are exploited, or perhaps trafficked, in such brothels to be the victims of such violence on an ongoing, daily basis—and even to be the victims of murder. Therefore, we are not talking about one solution being without risk and the other being entirely full of risk.

I simply refer to the purpose of the orders, which is to apply to a limited number of premises where some of the worst exploitation is taking place. We will do our utmost, working with the police, to ensure that the  orders are targeted and that the guidance is in line with what we want to achieve under the Bill.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Does that mean that the guidance will contain criteria that stipulate that a brothel will be closed down if it is premises where child pornography or prostitution, trafficking, control for gain and drug abuse are happening?

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

It will depend on the circumstances of the case, but the closure orders will be not only targeted, but used proportionately. In the circumstances where the offences that we are talking about are prevalent in that premises, I see no reason why the authorities would not use such orders—it is not defensible for them not to use them if their use would help to disrupt that form of criminality, although there must be a process of careful consideration whether to use such a closure order, because every circumstance will be different.

However, in the general circumstances that the hon. Lady is talking about—those things that might be happening in those premises—I see no reason why the orders would not be used, because the purpose of the orders is to try to disrupt that particular activity.

With those remarks, and fearing that I have not convinced everyone but nevertheless stating the intention of what we are trying to achieve, I urge that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 20 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.