I beg to move,
That this House
has considered trends in prosecutions for prostitution.
Women who sell sex on the streets have always been the most visible, most vulnerable and most stigmatised part of the sex trade. However, in the past two years, for the first time in our recent history, they have also become the most targeted by the state. In this debate, I will outline how the burden of criminality has shifted in our law courts between those who sell sex and those who procure it. Remarkably, despite there being a broad and publicly stated consensus among the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Home Office, survivors’ groups, health services and academics that women in prostitution should be diverted from our criminal justice system, those women are being targeted—in some cases, at twice the rate of men.
We in this House know that views on prostitution can be deeply polarised. For some, prostitution is simply a matter of private choices, while for others the harm that it inflicts on individuals and communities requires the state to take proportionate action. It is therefore no surprise that our legislators rarely visit prostitution policy. It is politically charged; a subject where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head-on with notions of liberal freedom, and where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base and, frankly, very few votes. Also, I have yet to see evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population, within which one in 10 men have purchased sex. Therefore, it is little wonder that last year’s report by the all-party group on prostitution and the global sex trade, which I chair, on how the law should change was the first major cross-party intervention on this subject for some 20 years.
In taking evidence for that report, we spoke to women who sell sex and the men who buy it, as well as to the agencies we ask to police prostitution and the services we ask to pick up the pieces. Our conclusion was stark: because our lawmakers send no clear signals about the nature of prostitution, the most visible people involved—those who sell sex—are targeted, while the men who create the demand often walk away, without taking responsibility for the damage that they do. Therefore, the figures that I will highlight today are just another symptom of a broader problem.
Once, there were consistently more prosecutions for kerb-crawling, brothel-keeping and control of prostitution, but in each year since 2013 there have been more prosecutions for soliciting and loitering than for profiting from prostitution and kerb-crawling. In simple terms, offences that are, by and large, committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pockets have a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted, and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts and in prosecutions, the most vulnerable party involved in the transaction carries the burden of criminality and punishment.
The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. Let us take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14, just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb-crawling, but there were 553 prosecutions—more than twice as many—for soliciting and loitering. There is a similar pattern in the 2014-15 figures, with 227 charges for kerb crawling reaching court compared with 456 prosecutions initiated against people selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution—pimping—were brought in the same year. Those figures refer to men and women on the same streets, and it takes a particular kind of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex rather than by men wishing to purchase it. Yet it is women who sell sex who are targeted in our law courts, not the men who create the demand in the first place.
The current situation goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s own guidance:
“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women (VAW) strategy because of its gendered nature. As with other VAW crimes, a multi-agency approach is needed to enable women involved in prostitution to develop routes out of prostitution, and to provide the most appropriate support…The ACPO’s policy and strategy for policing prostitution is clear in its commitment to recognise prostitution as a victim-centred crime, and that those who are abused and exploited require holistic help and support to exit prostitution. There is a need to adopt a multi-agency approach and work with voluntary sector organisations to enable those involved in prostitution to change their lifestyles and to develop routes out.
At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”
That is the guidance—why then is this happening? For the same reason it always does. In our criminal justice system, stigmatised poor women are still, tragically, valued less than moneyed, often professional, men. As I have said, the number of prostitution-related offences is down, but that does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, nor in its inherently exploitative and violent nature.
Some reductions could be welcome. For example, the 75% reduction in prosecutions over the past six years for brothel keeping could reflect a more sensitive approach by the police to the requirement to protect, without coercion, a small number of women working together, but between 2008-09 and 2013-14 there was a nearly 50% drop in prosecutions for pimping, a 35% drop in prosecutions for kerb crawling and a 74% drop in prosecutions for advertising prostitution. All those offences concern the people who create the demand for, or exploit, the most vulnerable in the transaction—women who sell sex. And it is still women; prostitution remains highly gendered, with the 2004 Home Office publication “Paying the Price” putting the ratio of women to men at 4:1. In 2014-15, more than double the number of prosecutions were initiated for soliciting and loitering—offences committed by and large by women—than for kerb crawling, which is committed almost exclusively by men. In fact, in the past two years there have been more prosecutions for loitering and soliciting than for pimping, brothel keeping, kerb crawling and advertising prostitution combined. There may be an alternative explanation, but my reading of the figures is that there is a consistent thesis that as police funding has been squeezed, the focus of the law around prostitution has been diminished and downgraded, the level of resources going into ongoing and targeted operations to prevent exploitation has reduced, and instead of going after those who create the demand and enable pimping, advertising or coercion—for understandable reasons the most resource-intensive operations—the authorities are going after the most visible part of the trade, and the quickest win: the women.
Despite differing views about how the legal settlement should be enacted, all sides in the debate have come together in the desire to see women diverted from the courts. Let us remember that it is still possible today, in 2015, for women to go to prison for offences related to prostitution, for example, for being unable to pay fines imposed for a series of prostitution-related offences. This debate raises those issues directly with the Ministers responsible, in the hope that they will reiterate and reinforce the current guidance and direct the police to take more measures to tackle demand rather than supply. To be honest, the prosecution bias against women in the law courts is not the problem; it is merely a symptom. The bias will be tackled only when the law reflects the inherent harm the trade presents to women, rather than sending mixed signals.
In the 2014 report produced by our all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade, “Shifting the Burden”, alarming submissions highlighted the number of women in the trade who were survivors of child sexual exploitation, or were care leavers, or who had entered at an age where they could not consent. For most women in on-street work, drug and alcohol abuse is a fact of life. All that is a world away from the myth of the “happy hooker” promoted on television and in film. We reported that the legislation is complicated and confusing, and that loopholes still exist that allow men to escape prosecution for abusing girls as young as 13, and for trafficking women into the country to be raped repeatedly.
We also showed that policing and enforcement is unevenly prioritised and resourced across the country, with a few exceptions that are made possible only through extraordinary political leadership at a local level. We examined why girls at risk of entry were not effectively diverted and why women who wished to exit were unable to do so, often as a direct result of the law’s stigmatising effect, and we looked at how notions of choice were deeply problematic where the sex trade was concerned. We also demonstrated the effect that prostitution had on wider cultural attitudes with regard to gender equality and how demand might be tackled by making it less socially acceptable to choose to buy sex.
In short, we recommended a shift in the burden of criminality from the most vulnerable and marginalised to those who create the demand in the first place. That is why I welcome the work of the “End Demand” campaign, with more than 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, and advocating the adoption of a sex-buyer law throughout the UK. Such a law would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Next month, the campaign’s report by a commission of expert witnesses on how a sex-buyer law could effectively be put into practice will be published, and I welcome that. Regardless of big changes in the law, however, I do not see how anyone can support the current state of affairs, with more prosecutions being brought against women than against men.
I would welcome the Minister’s addressing the following issues in her response. First, I would welcome her reiterating the guidance about the diversion of women from the criminal justice system wherever possible, and reinforcing the instruction to go after those who create the demand, or coerce or exploit those in prostitution. The ratio of women to men being prosecuted should return to pre-2013 levels. Secondly, will the Minister update the House on the progress of the violence against women and girls strategy on which consultation recently closed? Specifically, will she inform us whether the Westminster Government will follow the example of Holyrood and formally treat prostitution as a form of violence against women?
Thirdly, will the Minister state what more can be done to ensure that the police are directed—and have the resources—to go after those who control and create the demand for prostitution rather than their using crude measures to move on-street prostitution on, further trapping women in cycles of abuse? Finally, will she reassure me that the authorities are not targeting women because they are easier to arrest and prosecute? That goes against the Government’s own guidance, and against common sense and any sense of natural justice. In doing all that, I hope that the Minister will be able to make things an awful lot safer for one of the most vulnerable groups in our society.
It is an honour and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.
I congratulate Mr Shuker on securing the debate, and on his article on the New Statesman website, which I recommend to anyone listening. I know that he takes a great interest in this area, and I appreciate the points he raised. It is clear from what he said, as well as from the previous debates during the passage of the Modern Slavery Bill, that he and other hon. Members have strong views on this issue.
I start by reassuring the hon. Gentleman that the Government and I share his clearly stated desire to protect all women—particularly vulnerable women—from violence. As the Minister for Preventing Abuse and Exploitation, I am determined to do everything I can to protect victims and to bring perpetrators to justice. I recognise the harm and exploitation that can be associated with prostitution, and the Government are committed to tackling that. In that context, we cannot look at prostitution in isolation from the broader work taking place across Government and beyond to eradicate violence against women and girls, to protect vulnerable people and to tackle exploitation in all its forms. Protecting victims from crime remains at the heart of our approach. We can do that by preventing crime from occurring in the first place, supporting victims through the criminal justice system and helping them to recover, regain their confidence, and reclaim their lives. In short, we need to believe them, take them seriously and listen to them.
In March, the Government published a report detailing progress in tackling violence against women and girls—if you will forgive me, Mr Evans, I will refer to it as VAWG from now on, which is the acronym that we all recognise— over the last Parliament. Our commitment to that important work continues: the previous Government ring-fenced £40 million for VAWG services—that is £10 million a year—and the Government are continuing that funding to April 2016. We are consulting on refreshing our VAWG strategy, which will be published later this year. I will say a little more on that in a moment.
It is important to recognise that local areas are in the best position to identify and respond to issues in their areas, and that includes the complex problems that can be associated with prostitution. Working alongside front-line organisations, other agencies and the Crown Prosecution Service as appropriate, local police are in the best position to respond. They know what to prosecute, when and why. The police are assisted in that by guidance from the national policing lead for prostitution, which makes clear that the police’s first priority is the protection of often vulnerable individuals from violent and sexual crimes. The national policing lead’s strategy for policing prostitution is clear on that, and the message will be emphasised in the refreshed and updated strategy due to be published later this year.
To be clear, the protection of victims is the Government’s priority, and our work on refreshing our VAWG strategy is based on that. As the hon. Gentleman said, we continue to work on that. I am leaving straight after this debate to have another round-table discussion on refreshing the strategy. I look forward to presenting that refreshed strategy, which will put victims at the heart of everything we do.
The hon. Gentleman also made a point about multi-agency working. He is absolutely right: the issue cannot be tackled solely through arrests and the criminal justice system; it has to be tackled by all agencies working together and by ensuring that women feel they have the support they need to not be forced into prostitution in the first place and that if they are, they will be helped out of it.
Legislation and prosecutions are only one aspect of the response. The police and the CPS are empowered by a degree of discretion in arresting, charging and prosecuting. We want them to use that discretion sensibly and appropriately, based on the circumstances of each case. That will allow them to focus on what causes the most harm.
Members will know that legislation on prostitution has grown somewhat organically over time. The most recent changes to offences in this area were made by the Policing and Crime Act 2009. Prosecution data from the Crown Prosecution Service show that there were 83 prosecutions for controlling prostitution in 2014-15, compared with 58 in the previous year. That represents a continuation of the increase in prosecutions since 2011 and reflects a focus on tackling exploitation. As the hon. Gentleman said, there was also an increase in prosecutions for brothel offences: 96 in 2014-15, compared with 55 in the previous year.
However, prosecutions are not everything. Many factors can contribute to women’s presence in a brothel. They may be victims or perpetrators of exploitation, running or profiting from activities. Importantly, where the police refer cases to the CPS, there is discretion and guidance on whether to charge and prosecute. Generally, the degree of coercion and control of a prostitute’s activities, as well as penalising those who profit from their earnings, will determine the public interest in prosecuting. The CPS’s approach emphasises that anyone abused and exploited through prostitution needs help and support on health and welfare to exit prostitution. The CPS is encouraged to adopt a partnership approach with local authorities and other statutory and non-statutory organisations to find routes out of prostitution other than charging.
It is worth noting that the longer-term trend for the number of offences of soliciting for prostitution recorded by the police in England and Wales is downward. Since 2010-11, fewer than a thousand such offences have been recorded annually—it was 868 in 2014-15, compared with more than 2,000 in 2002-03. Of those, only approximately half were prosecuted, and prosecutions are also showing a downward trend. Those figures will reflect a number of factors, including incidence, community concerns and police enforcement approaches.
Strong moral and ethical questions are raised by prostitution, but the Government’s overriding priority remains the safety of people involved in prostitution. Existing legislation regarding buying and selling sex is focused on minimising the harm and exploitation that can be associated with prostitution. Most recently, for example, the Government removed all references to the misleading and unhelpful terms “child prostitution” and “child pornography” from statute during the passage of the Serious Crime Act 2015. That was in recognition of the exploitation that can be associated with prostitution and clearly shows our shared duty to protect the most vulnerable, particularly children.
Different legislative approaches have been adopted in different jurisdictions. I know that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the approach in Sweden and some neighbouring countries, which is often referred to as the Nordic model. I am also aware of recent legislative developments in Northern Ireland, and we will follow their implementation and impact with interest. It is important to reflect that an alternative view challenges the position that all paying for sex is by definition violence. That has been expressed by a variety of organisations, including those that represent people involved in prostitution. It was expressed most recently by Amnesty International, which changed its position.
It is difficult to argue that any single legislative approach to prostitution is ideal. A perfect solution probably does not exist. To be clear, I am not suggesting that those involved in prostitution have made an independent and free choice to do so. In fact, during my work on the Modern Slavery Act 2015, I met many victims of trafficking who were forced into prostitution entirely against their will. We all recognise the need for the law to protect the vulnerable and punish the perpetrator, but when considering alternative legislative approaches we must consider carefully whether we are confident that they support the safety of those involved in prostitution. I continue to and have always been willing to listen to the evidence about what works to keep the public safe. At this stage, I do not believe there is sufficient evidence of the value of such significant changes to the legal and moral position of buying sexual services in reducing harm to those involved, but I will continue to watch with interest.
We hear differing views on this issue whenever it is debated, and I respect Members’ genuinely held positions on how to achieve the best outcomes for often vulnerable individuals. The issues around prostitution are complex and contentious, but regardless of the legal position of prostitution, the law on rape and sexual assault is crystal clear and unequivocal. We expect every report of violence to be treated seriously from the time it is reported, every victim to be treated with dignity and every investigation and prosecution to be conducted thoroughly and professionally. In that context, it is important to reflect on the increased reporting rates for these terrible crimes, which show that victims increasingly have the confidence to report and can access the support they deserve. I am proud of the progress we are making in tackling all aspects of violence against women and girls and in protecting all victims. As the Minister for Preventing Abuse and Exploitation, I am determined to do everything I can to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice.
Question put and agreed to.