Policing and Crime Bill
House of Commons Third Reading 19 May 2009
John McDonnell: May I just say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is no way to run a country, is it? We have had two hours of debate on amendments and about 15 more amendments will not even be discussed. We are talking about the prospect of legislation that will put prostitutes’ lives at risk and will allow people to be arrested, detained and deprived of their liberty. We have had two hours, and that is all. I say to the Government that we cannot go on like this with criminal justice legislation.
We also cannot legislate on the basis of such lack of knowledge. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), I have tabled questions just to try to get some information. We asked the Government how many prostitutes there are in the country, and about their ages, sexes and basic circumstances, and we were told that information was not available. We then found that 80,000 was the figure used in one of the reports—one reference mentioned that a vast proportion were trafficked. We asked how many were trafficked and the Government estimate that came back was 4,000. I asked about incidents of violence in relation to prostitution, and was told that the information was not held centrally. I asked for information about prosecutions concerning brothels, and was told that information was not held centrally. We not only do not give ourselves the time to discuss legislation, but we legislate in absolute ignorance of the facts of what is happening on the ground.
Let me very briefly address the amendments tabled in my name, and particularly new clause 37. I would welcome a Division on that new clause, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I accept that we might have to make choices between new clause 4 and new clause 37. If there has to be a priority, I would support a Division on new clause 4, because it relates to children.
A number of us have tried as best we can to get as much information on the subject as possible. I pay tribute to the English Collective of Prostitutes, which has brought together the Safety First coalition. I have met a number of representatives of the constituency of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), and particularly from Ipswich. I have met the GMB sex workers branch; the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, the religious group; Imperial College, which has carried out research; the Royal College of Nursing; the Women’s Institute, which got involved in these discussions; the National Association of Probation Officers; and Women Against Rape. They have tried to raise at least some awareness and consciousness of what prostitution is like in this country. My amendments are based on that information and on the level of understanding that many of us have gained.
I have met sex workers in this country—men and women—who are sex workers by choice. They feel that there is no reason why they should be penalised for offering what they believe is a service to other human beings. They do not believe that that relationship is exploitative. Like others, I find that difficult to accept, but we have met those people and discussed their role with them. . . .
John McDonnell: What came across from all the information we have gleaned, and from the Government’s strategy discussions in the early stages, is that there are women and men who undertake such work from choice, but most others—the vast majority—do not. They are there because of push factors such as poverty and drug dependency, and they often have mental health problems or other background problems. They need assistance to get “off the game”, as they say. The one message that comes across loud and clear is that anything that criminalises their actions in any way undermines their ability to leave those occupations voluntarily. . . .
John McDonnell: We all bring anecdotal evidence. I have been convening Safety First Coalition meetings for more than three years and I have met a group of people who work with prostitutes in such centres and I have to tell my hon. Friend that a vast proportion of them oppose any measures that would introduce criminality in the system, because engagement with the legal system is such a deterrent. . .
John McDonnell: In fact, in the consultations the Government undertook, the view expressed time and again in various representations was that punitive measures actually make matters worse. It did not help that the Government did not publish the 67 responses to their consultation—a vast proportion of which opposed their proposals on criminalisation. As we learned from Ipswich, the overall priority is the need for safety. Anything that undermines the safety of sex workers should be avoided.
On new clause 4, I endorse the assertion made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) that we are talking about children who are victims. Almost every children’s agency with which we have had discussions has said that we need to ensure that there is decriminalisation. Anything that increases the stigma for children and prevents them from coming forward will undermine their ability to seek protection and security.
Turning to new clauses 37 and 38, we have to recognise that women work together in brothels for safety reasons. My new clause would simply bring into legislation what Ministers were arguing for only a few years ago: to recognise that where two women come together, with a maid or madam—however we describe her—they should not be prosecuted under legislation relating to brothels. When we undertook our consultation, the English Collective of Prostitutes provided their analysis showing that it is 10 times safer for women to work in a brothel than to work on the street. As was mentioned earlier, small brothels often involve people working co-operatively to ensure their safety.
In 2005, when my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) was a Home Office Minister, she announced that two women should be able to work together from premises, yet that idea has been dropped and we are now introducing relatively punitive measures. In 2006, the Home Office acknowledged that—I quote from an article in The Times—
“the present definition of brothel ran counter to advice that, in the interests of safety, women should not sell sex alone.”
In recent months, the RCN has also debated the fact that nurses and health workers who work with sex workers are fearful for the safety of women who work on the street and are urging the Government to reconsider. At that time, the Government and others were considering four women working together. I am willing to accept a compromise of two women if that would increase their safety. The reality of the sex trade in this country is that women are working together to provide one another with safety and security.
Mention has been made of New Zealand, where a law makes a distinction between small, collectively run brothels of up to four people working together and larger brothels, which must be licensed. All the reports from New Zealand have said that the new legislation has increased the safety and security of women by enabling them to work together in that way.
Some of the information that we have managed to glean suggests that prosecutions for keeping a brothel used for prostitution have been increasing. In 2004, there were only three such prosecutions; in 2007—the latest figures that we could extract—there were 41. So the increasing pressure that is being put on women working together in brothels is forcing women on to the streets and into insecure and unsafe conditions.
One of the reasons police harassment of brothels and sex workers has increased is, unfortunately, the incentive provided by the proceeds of crime legislation, whereby 25 per cent. of any assets confiscated during a raid on a brothel goes towards the police, 25 per cent. goes towards the Crown Prosecution Service and the Inland Revenue takes the rest. That is almost like the Government and the police living off immoral earnings. No wonder that there is an incentive to increase the number of raids on brothels.
What we are asking for in the new clause is simply a recognition of the reality that women will continue to work in the sex trade. If they do, they should be kept as safe as possible, and one way of doing so is to enable them to work in small numbers in brothels, where they can work co-operatively and therefore avoid the threat of being out on the street.
There are further amendments in my name. The Government are trying to introduce legislation whereby someone who is found in the same place twice in three months can be prosecuted for loitering or soliciting. I do not believe that something that happens twice in three months can be construed as persistent behaviour. We should reduce the period, and in amendment 6, I suggest using the phrase “twice in one week”—otherwise, we will draw more people into the criminal prosecution process, and they will therefore be more unsafe if they work in that way.
In amendment 7, I refer back to the debate that we had on previous legislation when a system of penalties was introduced whereby a person goes before a court, is given an order and placed before a supervisor. In all the discussions that we have had with NAPO—the trade union that represents the supervisors, given that the Government inform us that they will be appointed by the probation service—it has told us that the resources and trained staff are not available. In fact, the probation service is being cut back at the moment, as we learned from a seminar today. Therefore, the staffing is not available.
If such people, who lead extremely chaotic lives, do not attend a series of three interviews, they will be placed back before the courts. We are told today that that will be done as soon as practicable. We have been given such assurances on other new laws and crimes, and the phrase “as soon as practicable” can mean that someone is detained at least overnight. Our fear is that someone could be detained for up to 72 hours. That would have a devastating effect not only on individuals, but on their families. Many of them have children who need to be cared for. Therefore, my view is that that provision will render itself unworkable, while having a deleterious impact on the women themselves and on their families. It will be a way to intimidate women even further and undermine their ability to get off the game.