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Volume 719: debated on Thursday 3 June 2010


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review the law on prostitution so that people who work together in a house for their own safety are not thereby subject to prosecution.

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Dholakia, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, we are studying closely how police forces are enforcing the law and how courts deal with the matters brought before them. We are also considering how to deal with the lessons learnt from the recent terrible events in Ipswich and Bradford. We are committed to tackling exploitation and harm caused to those involved in prostitution. All local agencies must work together to ensure the safety of the women involved.

My Lords, on the first occasion that my noble friend has appeared at the Dispatch Box to answer a Question, perhaps I may warmly congratulate him on his appointment. In the light of Miss Claire Finch being acquitted by Luton Crown Court at the end of April of running a brothel with three other women at her home in Bedfordshire, will the Government encourage the CPS to issue guidance to police forces on the undesirability of prosecuting the hundreds of other women in similar situations? Given that it is 10 times riskier for prostitutes to work on their own, will the Government invite stakeholders such as the English Collective of Prostitutes and the Safety First Coalition to a consultation on how women engaged in providing sex services can be safeguarded, including an examination of the law in New Zealand, where it is lawful for up to four people to work together in the same premises, as my noble friend Lady Miller has reminded your Lordships on frequent occasions?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his good wishes. On the question of consultation and the organisations that he referred to, yes, we are in listening mode and we will be very pleased to have further discussions with him. As I said in my initial reply, we have studied what the courts were doing with cases brought before them. That will also affect the development of future policy.

The 2009 Act was first implemented on 1 April. At the moment, we must see how it beds down. As it stands, it is for the decision of local police forces, but there is a lot of learning to be done about how to respond to these issues and I hope that that will continue to be so at both national and local level.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Government have any plans to curb the demand side of the sex industry, as well as the supply side.

As the noble Baroness is aware, that was very much the thrust of the 2009 Act. We shall see whether the Act causes a drop on the demand side. Having done a quick crash course on these issues, I do not believe that there is a silver bullet for this. As noble Lords know, some countries such as Sweden go for the demand side, while others such as Holland go for decriminalisation. The department is looking very carefully at the experience of countries abroad in how to deal with this as well as at how various experiments in approach in this country are progressing and what impact they are having on this problem.

My Lords, will the Government legalise brothels on health grounds, as has been done in other countries? I am not sure whether I am up to date, but my long-held views have certainly been shared by the Women’s Institute.

That is a daunting endorsement, which any Minister would have to ponder. But seriously, this is a matter that we have to look at and on which we must develop policy. We must get away from talking about “the game”. In fiction we see the “happy hooker” and “belle de jour”, but this is not “belle de jour”. This is squalid, dangerous and criminal, and we must approach it as a society with that in mind. I assure my noble friend that we are looking at the experience of countries that have taken a different route and will learn the lessons from them in developing our policy.

My Lords, can the Minister comment on the fact that a great deal of the incentive towards prostitution is driven by drug addiction? Can we have an assurance that one way in which to deal with this issue is to ring-fence the current provision of rehabilitation facilities for those dependent on drugs who are likely to end up in prostitution or, indeed, to see that provision enhanced against a background of public service cuts?

My Lords, any commitments on ring-fencing are made at one’s peril, but I am aware that the three issues that come up time and again in any study of this problem are drug dependency, homelessness and unemployment. Any programme that will help women out of prostitution must address those issues. The briefing that I have received tells me that the work of faith groups in helping in these matters and helping women caught up in prostitution into rehabilitation has been very significant.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his post. I am sure he accepts that street prostitution is very dangerous and that not all street prostitutes could work from premises, even if they were legal. Is the Minister aware of projects in place to help prostitutes to be safer and to work with the police to take to court those who rape and assault street prostitutes? There are two of these projects, one in Bristol and one in Liverpool. Will he find out about them, perhaps invite those who run them to come and see him, and then take a view on whether it would not be worth increasing the number of such projects?

My Lords, I could not agree more. Both those projects were referred to in my briefing and I am aware that the department is in discussion with those local authorities. There is a strong sign that local authorities, the police and the courts are talking to each other and co-operating; there is also a lot of first-impression evidence that where that co-operation takes place women are able to get out of prostitution. What is more, on the other side—I think this was in the 2009 Act as well—we are going to go against the perpetrators, not only those who buy sex but those, particularly in organised crime, who make vast profits from it.