New Clause 23 - Sexual exploitation of an adult

Criminal Justice Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 30 January 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

“(1) The Sexual Offences Act 2003 is amended as follows.

(2) Section 52 is amended as follows—

(a) in the title for ‘Causing or inciting prostitution’ substitute ‘Sexual exploitation’, and

(b) in paragraph (1)(a) for ‘causes or incites another person to become a prostitute’ substitute ‘sexually exploits another person’.

(3) Section 53 is amended as follows—

(a) in the title for ‘prostitution’ substitute ‘sexual exploitation’, and

(b) in paragraph (1)(a) for ‘prostitution’ substitute ‘sexual exploitation’.

(4) Section 54 is amended as follows—

(a) in subsection (2) for ‘sections 51A, 52, 53 and 53A’ substitute ‘section 53A’, and

(b) at end insert—

‘(4) In sections 52 and 53 “sexual exploitation” means conduct by which a person manipulates, deceives, coerces or controls another person to undertake sexual activity.’.” —(Jess Phillips.)

This new clause is an amendment to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, specifically in Sections 52 and 53, “replacing prostitution for gain” with “sexual exploitation of an adult”.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 26—Loitering and soliciting: repeal—

“Section 1 of the Street Offences Act 1959 (loitering or soliciting for purposes of prostitution) is repealed.”

This new clause repeals soliciting and loitering as an offence.

New clause 30—Power of Secretary of State to disregard convictions or cautions: Loitering or soliciting for purposes of prostitution—

“(1) Section 92 of the Street Offences Act 1959 is amended as follows.

(2) For subsection (1) substitute—

‘(1) A person who has been convicted of, or cautioned for, an offence in circumstances where—

(a) the conduct constituting the offence was sexual activity between persons of the same sex, or

(b) the offence was committed under section 1 of the Street Offences Act 1959, may apply to the Secretary of State for the conviction or caution to become a disregarded conviction or caution.’

(3) In subsection (2) after first ‘caution’ insert ‘received in the circumstances set out in subsection (1)(a)’.”

A new clause that allows a process allowing the Secretary of State to disregard convictions and cautions received under section 1 of the Street Offences Act 1959.

New clause 44—Offence of enabling or profiting from prostitution—

“(1) A person or body corporate (C) commits an offence if they—

(a) facilitate, whether online or offline, or

(b) gain financially from

a person (A) engaging in sexual activity with another person (B) in exchange for payment or other benefit, or the promise of payment or other benefit, and the conditions in subsection (2) are met.

(2) The conditions are—

(a) that C knows or ought to know that A is engaging in, or intends to engage in, sexual activity for payment or other benefit; and

(b) that C is not a dependent child of A.

(3) For the purposes of this section—

(a) ‘Sexual activity’—

(i) means any acts which a reasonable person would, in all the circumstances but regardless of any person’s purpose, consider to be sexual,

(ii) requires A and B to be in each other’s presence,

(b) ‘Facilitates’ includes, but is not limited to, causing or allowing to be displayed or published, including digitally, any advertisement in respect of sexual activity involving A.

(4) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable—

(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or both;

(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years.”

This new cause would make it an offence to facilitate or profit from the prostitution of another person.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

The new clause seeks to replace the term “Controlling prostitution for gain” with

“sexual exploitation of an adult” and to provide a definition of “adult sexual exploitation” through the Sexual Offences Act 2003, as one does not currently exist.

In 2015, a significant change was made through the Serious Crime Act 2015 whereby “controlling a child prostitute” or a “child involved in pornography” was replaced with

“sexual exploitation of a child”.

That led to a shift in perceptions—we would never use the term “child prostitute” now, but we definitely did when I was first working in this field—so that child victims of exploitation were exactly that: victims. It also allowed for the improvement of service provision and available support. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is better. Children who were once labelled as prostitutes or as having made poor lifestyle choices are now quite rightly recognised as children who have been groomed.

Unfortunately, no such change has occurred for adult victims of sexual exploitation. Once an individual reaches the age of 18, there is often a sudden change in the perception of their experiences by professionals and services—actually, the problem often occurs once an individual reaches the age of 16, as that is the age of consent. Victims of adult sexual exploitation are falsely identified as consensually engaging in sex work, and the labelling of that abuse as “prostitution” in law only serves to perpetuate it. That mislabelling has led to countless people across the UK falling through the gaps and not receiving necessary support as their experiences are not recognised.

Adult sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse that is poorly understood and rarely recognised across many sectors. Sexual exploitation occurs when an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a person into sexual activity. That activity is often done in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and disproportionately benefits the perpetrator. In some cases the perpetrator will be instrumental in creating the need, thus making the victim dependent on them.

I should declare that I am chair of STAGE, a partnership on adult sexual exploitation. That group of charities supports women who have been groomed for sexual exploitation across the north-east and Yorkshire. One STAGE case study particularly highlights the sudden change in the perception of sexual exploitation once an individual reaches adulthood; I have changed the name of the woman involved for her anonymity.

Mina was 15 when she was introduced to her perpetrator. He began to groom Mina, supplying her with alcohol and drugs, and she developed a dependency on alcohol. He used fear and the shame of that dependency as a form of control to ensure that she did not speak out about the abuse she was subject to. Between the ages of 15 and 18, Mina was seen by professionals and services as a victim of child sexual exploitation and they did all they could to safeguard her. At 18, the exploitation was continuing, but when she moved into adult services the police and adult social care questioned whether Mina was just making unwise choices and whether she was getting something out of those exchanges. In March 2023, Mina had a missing episode and was located following a sexual assault. However, the responding officer informed Mina’s STAGE support worker that her experience could not have been sexual exploitation because she is over the age of 18.

The lack of a legal definition and the continued labelling of the sexual exploitation of adults as “controlling prostitution for gain” has led to the continued abuse of countless women like Mina, and a lack of response from safeguarding agencies; new clause 23 would play a vital role in changing that. I dealt with a case literally this morning involving the desperate mother of a 22-year-old woman who is being sexually exploited for drugs. Nobody will listen to the mother, and social services have referred to her daughter as a prostitute.

New clause 26 would decriminalise the offence of loitering or soliciting for the purposes of prostitution by repealing section 1 of the Street Offences Act 1959. Tens of thousands of sex-trade survivors who are convicted of that offence endure violence and abuse from punters and pimps. While the victims are criminalised for offences arising from their exploitation, the exploiters and abusers remain at liberty to continue offending. Some of the women were children at the time they were first exploited and convicted. Many were groomed as children but only convicted as adults—often under the continuing control of their pimps and traffickers.

Fiona Broadfoot was just 15 when she was first exploited into prostitution by a man posing as her boyfriend who became her pimp. As well as sexually abusing her himself, he made Fiona sell sex on the streets, where she often feared for her life. She finally escaped him when she was picked up by another pimp, who, along with his father, continued to pimp her on the streets and in brothels, where she was repeatedly raped. She suffered violence and abuse from her pimps and punters, and was regularly arrested by the police while they exchanged friendly greetings with her pimp. As a consequence of her history, which dates back to the 1980s, Fiona has 39 convictions for soliciting and loitering that will remain on her record for life—despite having exited prostitution more than 30 years ago. She is one of thousands of women who have lived through this experience.

Times have changed. Those involved in street prostitution are now widely understood to be victims and are usually no longer arrested. In 1989, more than 15,739 women were cautioned or convicted for soliciting for prostitution; by March 2021, police recorded only 302 cases of that offence. The changing nature of prostitution from street-based to online, combined with police guidance on seeing those prostituted as victims, means that only those deemed persistent and troublesome are now arrested.

The UK’s approach to the offence is not replicated in major Council of Europe states. In those countries prostitution has been fully decriminalised, or a sex buyer model has been adopted that decriminalises only those exploited, and not those who profit from prostitution. The existing legislation fails to comply with international human rights obligations to women exploited in prostitution, including the Istanbul convention and the provisions on trafficking and modern slavery in the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. The new clause would provide the necessary recognition that women convicted of this offence are not criminals.

New clause 30 would provide a mechanism for convictions and cautions received for the offence of loitering or soliciting for the purposes of prostitution to be disregarded. Criminal records for this offence are currently retained until the survivor reaches the age of 100. This means that women who are convicted continue to be disadvantaged by the mandatory retention of these records, which are a result of being historically subjected to violence and exploitation by pimps and traffickers.

Before 2003, the offence was discriminatory on the basis of sex, such that only women could be convicted. Even after the offence was made sex-neutral, women continued to be disproportionately affected. The policy of retention of criminal records therefore continues to have a hugely disproportionate and discriminatory impact on women. Just as the post office workers have had their convictions cleared, these women deserve to move on with their lives. The new clause presents an opportunity to address this ongoing miscarriage of justice.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East 2:15, 30 January 2024

I rise to speak to new clause 44, which enacts a recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee, which I am a member of, and is supported by its Chair, my right hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson. The clause is very simple. It outlaws pimping, and we need it to combat sex trafficking.

Members might be surprised to learn that some forms of pimping are still legal in this country. Take pimping websites, which the Home Affairs Committee looked at during our inquiry on human trafficking. These websites are dedicated solely or partly to advertising people for prostitution. The operators of the sites knowingly pimp people for prostitution, and the biggest sites make millions of pounds from it. Despite it being illegal to place a prostitution advert in a phone box, our laws are failing to keep up with technological change; that same advert can be hosted on a website with complete impunity. As a result, pimping websites make it as easy to order a woman to sexually exploit as it is to order a takeaway. This has been a total boon for sex traffickers.

The Home Affairs Committee concluded:

“Websites advertising prostitution significantly facilitate trafficking for sexual exploitation.”

The websites make it quick and easy for traffickers to advertise their victims and connect with their customers nationwide. As a result, pimping websites are now a core component of the standard business model of sex trafficking in the UK. Shockingly, one of these websites admitted to the Home Affairs Committee that it allows single individuals to advertise multiple women for prostitution at the same time on its site and allows the same contact phone number to be used across multiple different adverts. These are both obvious red flags for sex trafficking.

We also know that one trafficker convicted of sexually exploiting women in the UK spent an astonishing £25,000 advertising his gang’s victims on the same pimping website. The group exploited at least 11 young Romanian women, trafficking them from across the north-west of England and Northern Ireland. Chillingly, law enforcement revealed that the website operators responded to the fact that one man was spending thousands of pounds advertising women for prostitution not by calling the police but by allocating him his own account manager to make sure he could spend more. It is an absolute scandal that these pimping websites have been allowed to operate in plain sight. To combat trafficking in this country, we must update our laws so that it is illegal to pimp online as well as offline.

New clause 44 would enact the recommendation of the cross-party Home Affairs Committee to make it a criminal offence to facilitate or profit from the prostitution of another person online or offline. I hope we can come together across the House to make that recommendation law.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East and for Birmingham, Yardley, and of others who do so much to advance women’s rights through their work in and out of this House. That is, of course, across parties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley mentioned her work with the STAGE project. One of the members of that group is A Way Out, a fantastic charity based in Stockton with which I am very familiar. It does hugely important work supporting vulnerable and excluded women, families and young people to live lives free from harm, abuse and exploitation. I know that many of us on this Committee have civil society groups and charities in or near our constituencies that dedicate themselves to tackling abuse and exploitation in our communities, and I am sure that we would all like to put our thanks to them on the record this afternoon.

As my hon. Friend has just outlined, new clause 23 replaces the term “controlling prostitution for gain” in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 with

“sexual exploitation of an adult”.

That would follow more closely the terminology introduced into English law in 2015 in relation to the sexual exploitation of children, which my hon. Friend has outlined in detail. The new clause may help to address some of the cliff-edge differences in treatment that those subject to such exploitation experience when they turn 18.

I am sure that the Minister recognises the need for continuity of support for those subject to or at risk of exploitation, and agrees that simply turning 18 should not provide a reason for changing perceptions of and treatment for victims of sexual exploitation. Is the Minister aware of any discussions in the Department, following the changing of the terminology around sexual exploitation of children, about the way that the law refers to such exploitation when perpetrated against adults? If so, could she share them with the Committee?

New clause 23 also aims to provide a definition of adult sexual exploitation through the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The STAGE project’s access-to-justice work has identified that women who have experienced sexual exploitation can face barriers to accessing justice at all points in the criminal justice system. One of the contributing factors to the barriers that many victims face when accessing justice is that some may not even initially recognise that they have experienced sexual exploitation —partly on account of the fact that there is no statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts about the potential benefits of introducing a statutory definition in relation to this type of offending. That may be of help not only to victims, in understanding their experiences as adult sexual exploitation, but to criminal justice professionals, such as the police, in identifying cases of this horrific offending.

I turn briefly to new clauses 26 and 30, which would respectively repeal soliciting and loitering as an offence and provide for a process allowing the Secretary of State to disregard convictions and cautions related to soliciting. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley has outlined, this offence has been dispro-portionately used to criminalise vulnerable and exploited women, after which the offence stays on their criminal record for decades—I think I heard my hon. Friend say “up to the age of 100”, but I do not know how many people get to 100.

The retention of those records can be distressing and degrading, and can interfere with the ability of the women to move on with their lives. It can prevent them from getting access to certain jobs and may make accessing certain types of support more difficult. Even when the women are trying to move forward with their lives, they are confronted by yet more challenges because they have been criminalised, while many of those actually perpetrating such exploitation have not.

The Centre for Women’s Justice has been challenging this regime in the courts in recent years through its HOPE—history of prostitution expunged—campaign, with some notable successes. One of the women involved in the campaign, whose name has been changed to Martha to maintain anonymity, said:

“I have a sheer panic when I see a job and then see ‘DBS required’. I feel the reaction I experience is a form of trauma—anxiety, anger and rage. I also feel disgust that people are so judgmental when to me the perpetrator, who experiences none of this, is the one who should feel shame”.

Clearly, more needs to be done to ensure that criminal records do not compound trauma for these victims and prevent these women from moving forward with their lives.

The Government have made some reforms to criminal records recently, most notably in the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which was being debated in Parliament around the same time as one of the Centre for Women’s Justice cases was being heard. The Government were not minded to expand the provision of criminal record reform further at that time. Can the Minister tell me whether anything has changed in the interim? Has the Department considered any other mechanisms through which the impact that criminal record disclosure can have on those women may be reduced?

Finally, on new clause 44, which creates a new offence of facilitating or profiting from the prostitution of another person, will the Minister share her views on measures to combat such exploitation? Overall, I hope we can have an update on the work of the Government to ensure that exploitation offences criminalise the exploiters rather than those being exploited.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office) 2:30, 30 January 2024

The Opposition Members are all correct: how the Government approach prostitution, and the way society views it, has changed and developed significantly in the last decades. Our policy towards sex work and prostitution is now much more focused on the harm associated with it and appropriately supporting people who wish to exit that industry. We are sympathetic to the new clauses and are considering them carefully.

The acts of buying and selling sex are not illegal in England and Wales, but many of the associated offences are: controlling prostitution and the kinds of offences that present a public nuisance, for example. New clause 23 amends the wordings of sections 52 and 53 of the Sexual Offences Act, which concern, respectively, the offences of causing or inciting another person to become a prostitute and controlling prostitution for gain. New clause 23 seeks to make more real the nature of the offence, which is to sexually exploit. The section 52 offence is designed to punish individuals who coerce others into sexual activity from which they or a third party profits. The section 53 offence punishes offenders who coerce or force others into sexual activity from which they or a third party profit. As a matter of law, the Government consider those offences fit for purpose. They enable the police to take enforcement action against the range of relevant offending that arises from an individual controlling the behaviour of an intimate partner or an organised criminal gang trafficking victims internationally. But wherever it sits on that spectrum, all such conduct is inherently exploitative.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s sex work guidance was updated in June 2003. At its core are five principles that recognise the complexity of the sex industry and the risks that sex workers face, and emphasise the imperatives to build mutual trust to improve sex workers’ safety and tackle exploitation by taking enforcement action against criminal exploiters.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

As someone who has done a lot of work on this, and as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley would agree, the terms “sex work” and “industry” are extremely offensive. We are talking about victims of prostitution, and this is not an industry—it is an exploitative environment.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I am happy to take that correction—sorry, I was just speaking informally when I should not have been.

On new clauses 26 and 30, section 1 of the Street Offences Act 1959 enables the police to divert individuals engaged in on-street sex work to alternative interventions. I will reference some of the points made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, because we did some research into what is happening. First, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s guidance, which advises officers, makes clear that it will not be commonplace to prosecute individuals who sell sex in public, and that every effort should be made to refer them to partner agencies and seek a diversionary route where possible. I have looked at the most recent data, which I will share with the Committee. In the year to March 2023, 301 soliciting crimes were recorded, of which 32—around 10%—resulted in either a charge or a summons. Of those that were charged, there has been on average less than one conviction a year from 2010 until today.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley also raised the issue of criminal convictions staying on people’s records. If someone is trying to exit enforced prostitution and rebuild their life, that is profoundly unhelpful—I agree with her without reservation. She will be aware of the announcement that spent convictions are now being removed from criminal records; that was in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, but has been reinforced by the Lord Chancellor a number of times. I have already said that I will write to her about something, but I will just update her on that. We are working to try to get criminal records off people’s profiles, so that they can move on with their lives. That applies for all offences, because we think it is important that rehabilitation should have a serious meaning, whatever the offence.

Where we have this offence at the moment, we are principally seeing the police using it as a tool for diversion—that can be interpreted in a number of ways, but that is what we are principally seeing. The police have a challenging role, balancing the need to safeguard vulnerable on-street women who are selling sex from the harm they face, with the need to protect neighbourhoods from the negative consequences of that type of activity. Obviously, other crimes can often be concomitant to prostitution, particularly on the part of the people who control the women. There is also the issue of children being able to witness stuff like that. The police have to strike a balance there. Careful consideration of the law in this area is warranted, even when such considerations are placed in the balance. At the moment, the law in this area gives the police the flexibility to balance the different priorities, but we are thinking hard.

New clause 44 was tabled by the hon. Member for Swansea East, who raised interesting points that intersect with modern slavery. She made an interesting observation about something that I have seen in some of my other work, about where numbers all link to one person, or whether the same number is being duplicated across different sites. That goes right to the heart of modern slavery, and is a pressing issue for the Home Office.

I want to flag to the hon. Lady one of the difficulties that cuts across her new clause. It would effectively put an end to online services where individuals selling sex advertise lawfully. The research that the Home Office commissioned from Bristol University, which we published in 2019, showed that some people prefer to use technology to advertise because they feel safer doing so. The Government’s priority is to keep people engaged in this kind of work safe from harm, so we have to tread a difficult balance. We do not want to do something antithetical to protecting people from harm, which might happen if individuals selling sex were deprived of using technology and somehow diverted on to the street, forced underground or forced into an inherently more dangerous practice. It is reasonable for us to consider all the outcomes that could result, although I am not disagreeing with the force of the hon. Lady’s argument.

The Online Safety Act 2023, which is going through various stages of commencement now, should ensure that online platforms for individuals advertising are responsible and accountable for the content on their sites. They are required in law to take proactive steps to prevent those sites from being used by criminals. The commencement of the Online Safety Act is happening currently, so it is difficult to give an assessment, but all of this was covered in it. That includes a requirement for sites to proactively identify and remove content that is linked to priority offences, including controlling and inciting prostitution for gain, and human trafficking and modern slavery. As I have said, this cuts across these issues. With all due respect to the arguments advanced, I invite hon. Members not to press their new clauses.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

I would welcome any intervention from the Minister. We would never write the phrase “child prostitute” into a document, so we should be really mindful of why on earth we allow that to continue with adults. We would call it exploitation; we call it the crime that it is.

Paying anybody for sex, even if completely legitimately —let’s face it, this mainly involves women—is fundamentally not a consensual act. None of us would choose it, would we? Would anybody here choose to have sex for money? We do not have to choose it from within a framework that means we will never have to. Would any of us choose it for our daughters? Would any of us be happy for our daughters to be on OnlyFans, selling it legally? I do not have any daughters, but I would certainly have a problem with my sons purchasing it.

The idea that this is a choice-based environment always gets used as a reason for not making progress on the issue. My concern is that there is no definition of adult sexual exploitation on a statutory footing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North has pointed out. Perhaps I would withdraw the motion on the basis that the Government go away and include the idea of adult sexual exploitation in the Bill, or even in the Victims Bill as it goes through. Why on earth do we not have a definition of adult sexual exploitation, as if the adults who do these things choose to do them, even though we have recognised that none of us would?

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.