I beg to move,
That this House has considered the offence of sex for rent.
It is an honour to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am also grateful to the Minister for being here. I have known him for a number of years in different capacities, and I know this is a subject that he will have a great deal of interest in.
I am grateful to have been granted the debate, because it gives us the chance to highlight a pernicious, exploitative and pervasive phenomenon that too few people are aware of and too little is being done to tackle. The issue of sex for rent was brought to my attention by Lauren Moss, a BBC journalist. She showed me evidence that people were accepting accommodation from landlords in return for not money, but sex.
We do not have to look hard for the adverts. They are not hidden deep in secret corners of online platforms. In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of this is how open and explicit the adverts are, and how integrated they have become into the advertising landscape for accommodation. Some adverts simply imply what the landlord is expecting:
“Free accommodation for attractive female”.
Others are more explicit:
“You do not have to pay any rent for your stay with me in exchange for some mutual fun times together”.
Many go into much more detail about how much sex is involved:
“You agree sort of like a couple of times a week, pop into my room sort of thing, but as far as the apartment’s concerned, it’s like completely as if we’re flatmates. It’s all the bills, the rent, free.”
The majority of the ads are aimed at women, but I have also seen them targeting young men. Ads describe in detail the age, look and demeanour expected of the tenant, as well as the amount and type of sex that is expected. People moving to towns and cities such as Brighton and Hove, which I represent, are uniquely vulnerable to sex for rent exploitation. Two universities, a housing crisis and ubiquitous access to online platforms such as craigslist mean that some young people are led swiftly down a path toward exploitation.
For some, there is a veneer of harmlessness about it. Because this is such a new phenomenon, understanding the extent of exploitation is hard, but emerging evidence shows that it is a much larger problem than anyone first thought, and it is getting worse. Last year, the housing charity Shelter conducted a tenant survey that addressed the question of sex for rent for the first time and provided the first quantitative data. It asked the question, “Have you ever been offered ‘sex for rent’ while renting?” The estimated number of women affected by the arrangement was shocking. More than 100,000 women have been offered sex for rent in the last year alone, around 250,000 women have been offered sex for rent in the last five years and more than 300,000 women have been offered sex for rent in the time that they have been renting.
I raised this issue with the Ministry of Justice last year to get clarity about the law. The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), wrote to me in July 2017 confirming that it was his belief that sex for rent fell foul of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and carried a maximum prison sentence of seven years. I sought further clarification of the law, working with Queen’s counsel from Cornerstone Barristers, who offered the following opinion:
“We believe that the practice of ‘sex for rent’ meets the definition of the criminal offence of causing or inciting prostitution for gain. The Offence is established by Section 52 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which provides as follows: ‘(1) A person commits an offence if—(a) he intentionally causes or incites another person to become a prostitute in any part of the world, and (b) he does so for or in the expectation of gain for himself or a third person.’”
It is clear that the incitement to sex in return for accommodation is a criminal offence.
I praise the hon. Gentleman for rightly highlighting this disgusting activity. Does he have a feel for why this is increasing now?
The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. A little later in my speech, I will highlight the fact that we have a perfect storm in certain cities and towns in our country. The housing crisis and the high cost of accommodation, combined with access to online platforms and the fact that university towns draw young people in, have created a perfect storm for exploitation in this way.
As I say, it is clear that the incitement to sex in return for accommodation is a criminal offence. There is no question. The sex itself does not need to happen for the law to be broken. That prompts a very important question: considering there are hundreds of live adverts online right now, today, and many thousands have been placed in recent years, why, to the best of my knowledge, has there not been a single arrest, let alone conviction? It is likely that thousands of people, mostly young, in Britain have been victims of sexual exploitation, yet not one perpetrator has been brought to justice.
Seeing that this was no longer a matter just of clarifying the law but of enforcing it, I also contacted the Home Office last year. The then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), took time to meet me on several occasions to discuss the matter and investigate ways forward. I am grateful to her for spending that time with me, and particularly for the effort she put in subsequently. It is my understanding that under her direction a work stream was established in the Home Office to look into ways of enforcing the law and bringing offenders to justice. However, to date there is no evidence of success. It is my hope that the new Home Secretary shares his predecessor’s concerns, but such matters must be judged on outcomes, and as this exploitation continues unabated, there is no ground for optimism yet.
I implore Ministers to look seriously at two distinct aspects of sex for rent. The first is bringing perpetrators to justice. There are hundreds of adverts online right now, clearly inciting people into the exchange of sex in return for services—there can be no doubt about that. The question is, why are those who place the advertisements not being locked up for it? Why are people left so exposed to exploitation, simply because the law enforcement agencies seem unable to adapt to the new trends in exploitation fast enough?
I realise that there are challenges. It seems that many people lured into these arrangements are middle class, emerging into adulthood, and they are exploring new freedoms, such as starting at university and moving to a new town. Thrown into that mix is an offer of free accommodation. The emotional impact and the price that they will pay for it may not be felt for years to come. It is unlikely that many victims would feel comfortable identifying themselves as prostitutes, which is how the law currently classes them, so most would be extremely unlikely to go through with a prosecution. Will the Minister consider a new legal definition for victims of sex for rent, in order to enable more victims to come forward? Ideally, the exchange should not take place at all.
I know the Minister personally places great emphasis on the prevention aspects of policing. Difficulties are posed when adverts are placed in areas covered by different police authorities from the areas where the offence is potentially taking place. Those are continual challenges for our policing across the UK. Can the Minister tell us which law enforcement agency is best placed to lead on this and when we can expect results? I am actively working with barristers from Cornerstone, who have generously given their time pro bono, to look into the possibility of a test case. That could provide a way forward to ignite a response from our law enforcement agencies, but it is not ideal. I would like to see our forces act first, and act fast.
Secondly, action must be taken against the websites hosting the adverts. Within a week of my first raising the issue, Gumtree, which had previously had such adverts on its website, came to see me in Parliament. It immediately instigated a policy to monitor and eradicate such adverts from its site, which has largely been successful. I know that Members from across the House will join me in thanking the company for taking such swift action to protect its own customers. Craigslist has chosen a different path. It has ignored my attempts at emailing, writing and calling. It has ignored the media outlets, such as the BBC, the Daily Mail, The Guardian and the Daily Mirror and, as far as I know, it has ignored the Home Office too. Not only is craigslist profiting from facilitating the sexual exploitation of young people, but it is treating our country and our Parliament with contempt.
I do not understand why craigslist is allowed to act like a pimp but is not treated like the pimp that it is. When police come across pimps in the streets, they act. They have the power to act and they know what to do with that power. However, because craigslist pimps via an online platform, we seem spellbound into inaction. Just because the pimps are sandal-wearing, cappuccino-swilling Californians does not mean that we should let them get away with it. Being allowed to trade and profit in our country is a privilege, and I do not see why, when that privilege is so blatantly abused and profit is made from sexual exploitation, we should stand idly by simply because tackling it is difficult.
We have a problem. It is a growing problem that will not go away. I look to the Government for decisive action to enforce the current law, to enhance the law to make it more accessible for victims of sex-for-rent, and to take action against craigslist, whose intransigence and amorality in the face of sexual exploitation should shame each and every one of its employees.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) on securing this important debate.
I first came across this issue while watching “Victoria Derbyshire”, on a Monday morning, I think. I was surprised that such an exploitative and vile practice could thrive in our midst, and that nothing seemed to have been done about it. Only subsequently did I understand that the hon. Gentleman had tried to do something about it a year and a half ago. It is frustrating that the then Home Secretary took an interest in the issue and looked into it, and it was established that sex for rent was a criminal offence, yet within the year and a half since it was first raised the practice seems to have continued, and in fact spread. Why is that? Why should we in this House be so powerless to do anything about it? We need to raise and talk about the issue and make sure that different Government Departments talk to each other, and then go into the core of why the problem continues.
As we have already heard, sex for rent is when a landlord solicits sex—as opposed to currency—in exchange for shelter. Many arrangements are informal and thrive in the shadows, taking advantage of young people who do not initially realise that they are doing something that will envelop them in an exploitative situation. I emphasise that the underlying problem of all this is the acute housing shortage. With very high rents, people find themselves unable to find accommodation. There are also more vulnerable people who cannot get on to the social housing ladder and who then find themselves in these arrangements, which ultimately become very exploitative and distressing. The situations tend to spiral, becoming mentally and physically damaging to victims, who find it impossible to escape that cycle and who fear reporting it to the police because they might be implicated in a crime.
The Government have stated that sex-for-rent arrangements are illegal and that landlords can be prosecuted, yet prosecutions for this crime remain incredibly rare. Why is that? When I met a Justice Minister, I learned that, interestingly, sex for rent is not a specific sexual offence but is within other sexual offences, so we do not actually know the number of cases. Finding out the exact numbers is important. Landlords can exploit legal grey areas that allow them to advertise directly to vulnerable people and to not-so-vulnerable—middle class or whatever—people who then become very vulnerable. We have already heard that websites such as craigslist give perpetrators of sex-for-rent crimes a platform to draw in their victims.
In the meeting with that Justice Minister, we established that we should look at the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines. I am very pleased to say that I was in contact this afternoon with the CPS, which confirmed that it is revising those guidelines and will include a new section on sex-for-rent arrangements and advertising. That is a win and a step forward, but we will need to monitor whether it will make a difference. We in the House and in the Government must stay on top of these crimes, which continue to thrive because they are a new phenomenon—a perfect storm, as the hon. Member for Hove pointed out.
I very much welcome that the Minister is listening, and I hope that we can make progress. I met the former Home Secretary, who has been very supportive and who suggested that the issue should be looked at by a Select Committee—probably the Women and Equalities Committee. However, although the victims are mainly women, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is also particularly vulnerable; this is not only a crime against a women. A work stream has been established, but I will very much welcome a Select Committee’s looking into this. I have engaged with the Chair of that Committee, who has also been very supportive. Working across the House to investigate and end this terrible exploitative practice must be in all our hearts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for setting the scene, as he often does, on issues of particular importance the House and to myself. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and to have heard her contribution.
I look around and see in the Chamber the familiar five Members who attend debates on all these issues, and I see the Minister, who is always there to respond. I have to say that, on the issues we have recently sought his interest in and his support and help for, he has been very responsive. I put that on the record at the start. I also thank the hon. Member for Hove for the hard work he has put into bringing this issue to light and into searching for answers. Perhaps in my contribution I can make some gentle suggestions from a Northern Ireland perspective, based on what we have done in the past, which might be helpful in bringing this forward.
That any person in our free, modern society should think it is okay to ask for sex as a payment of any type is absolutely disgraceful and unacceptable. That should be the starting point of the debate. This subject reminds me of something the BBC would put together: a gritty historical drama set in the Victorian era, in which an enlightened few try to bring about freedom and safety for people of all classes. The problem is that it is not a gritty historical drama but real life in 2018 in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
We have women and men who have nowhere to live and no money to rent and who have escaped the social security system and feel that they have no other option. As the hon. Members for Hove and for Bath said, if we put ourselves in their position and grasp that, we will realise just how far down the level of acceptability they have gone. They are doing something that they do not want to do but that they feel they have no other option but to do. They allow their body to be used so that they have a roof over their head. Sometimes it is as basic and as cold as that.
There are students who cannot afford to do it all and who make the decision to rent a room for free in exchange for sexual favours. I suspect that we all know stories from our constituencies and from further afield—the media is certainly full of them—of the unacceptable price of rental accommodation and of students with vast student loan debts. That puts some students in a position in which they are wondering, “How on earth am I going to afford this?” In desperation, as a last resort, they are driven towards these unacceptable, but for them sometimes very real, situations. The thought of my grandchildren being put into this kind of situation makes me feel physically ill. I find it abhorrent that anyone would put a person, either a young woman or a young man, in this situation. It is unjustifiable and we must address it. That is why I welcome the opportunity today to make a small contribution on this issue.
Technically, it is an offence to do what we are discussing. The previous Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice told the hon. Member for Hove that
“an offence is committed when a person offers accommodation in return for sex, as they are inciting/causing another person to have sex with them in return for ‘payment’.”
That is technical terminology. It appears to be a reference to the offence of causing or inciting prostitution for gain under section 52 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. However, that has yet to be tested, which is why I welcome the indication by the hon. Member for Hove of what solutions there could be. There certainly needs to be a prosecution—a test case. If the case is not winnable, let us change the legislation to stop this abhorrent practice once and for all.
So-called landlords feel that this is a grey area in which they can get away with exploiting vulnerable and needy people or young people, depending on their circumstances. We must send out a very clear message from this debate—a cross-party message from the hon. Members who are here to support the debate. How do we do that? That question was addressed first by the hon. Member for Hove and then by the hon. Member for Bath. Now I will pose it to the Minister, but in addition to posing it, I will—very gently and positively, I hope—put forward some suggestions.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is useful when media outlets pick up these issues, because that spreads the message and encourages people to come forward? It helps them to understand that this practice is illegal and that if they go to the police, there can be prosecutions, but people need to come forward.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. We need co-operation, and we perhaps need someone to take a lead by making a complaint to the police that can then be taken forward. Sometimes police also need help to bring about prosecutions and set the example that the hon. Member for Hove referred to in his introduction.
As I was saying, how do we send a clear message? I look to the Minister and offer my humble opinion that we should strengthen the law so that no one can feel that this is a grey area any more, as the hon. Member for Bath mentioned in her intervention. Let us in this debate, with a statement from the Minister, and more generally from the House, make this a black-and-white issue and keep men and women from being exploited in this way.
In Northern Ireland, we have sought to address issues such as this through the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. The legislation was brought forward in the Northern Ireland Assembly by my colleague in the other place, Lord Morrow. The Minister will be aware of this as part of the background to the issue, and I hope others are also aware of it, but Northern Ireland became the first part of the United Kingdom to make paying for sex a crime, when the legislation came into effect in June 2015. Anyone caught breaking the law can be jailed for up to a year and face a £1,000 fine. That is the sort of legislation that we need here; it is the sort of legislation that the hon. Members for Bath and for Hove, and indeed every one of us in the debate, would wish to see in place.
Let me give an idea of what can be achieved with such a law. I should say first that allegations may be made, but an evidential base has to be there as well. Figures released by the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland in August 2016 showed that seven people were referred to the PPS: no action was taken in three cases, two men received cautions, and the remaining two cases were being considered by a senior prosecutor. We have had events at the House of Commons and in the House of Lords at which we have made information about that legislation available for Members to look at.
The fact that the Police Service of Northern Ireland used the legislation to arrest men at the outset sent a very strong message that this behaviour and abuse of power is not acceptable and never can be. That message must be sent out UK-wide, and I sincerely but gently encourage the Minister to take steps to do that today: he should make it crystal clear not only that it is not okay to do these things and that advertising them publicly as if it were is not acceptable, but that if a person is found to be exploiting someone for sex in return for a room, that person will be arrested, will be fined and will go to jail. The Minister should give the police something to work with and give vulnerable people something to cling to. They are protected by law and, more than that, they are worth more than just a room for hire.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for bringing this issue to the House, because it is very important, and for his tenacity in campaigning on it and continuing to raise it. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for her work on the issue.
First, I would like to quote Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid:
“There is an intersection of poverty and violence against women. You cannot address one without the other and…I support anything that helps address those issues.”
The issue that we are discussing is part of the wider context of violence against women and the misogynistic treatment by men of women; we need to see it in that wider context. People are much more likely to find themselves in this kind of situation now than 10 years ago, because austerity has meant that the real incomes of many people are much lower than they were and people are turning to more and more extreme measures to make ends meet. It is now a well-trodden and established fact that austerity has affected women and young people disproportionately.
I condemn without reservation this phenomenon and those who would perpetrate it. If all of us here today know that women and young people are more likely to be desperate for a roof over their head, we can be sure that predatory sexual abusers are also well aware of that fact. In recognition of that, more than a year ago, the Scottish National party conference passed a resolution condemning this behaviour. I pay tribute to my colleagues Stuart McMillan MSP and Math Campbell-Sturgess, who introduced the resolution.
Our Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, Kevin Stewart MSP, has been trying to make progress on the issue as well. The situation with Gumtree and Craigslist described by the hon. Member for Hove also rings true in the Scottish Parliament: Gumtree was quick to come to the table on the issue and say what it was doing, but Craigslist again would not co-operate, would not turn up and would not engage with it. There needs to be stronger action by Ministers here to look at that.
This kind of “survival sex” is spilling out into the lives of increasing numbers of people who would never have considered selling sex and would probably not see it as such—people who may not see the vulnerability to exploitation, coercion and violence that they may be getting themselves into. “Rent for sex” adverts are easily found online. It takes seconds to discover them via a Google search. This is not a practice that people are trying to hide, and there are clearly very few negative consequences for those who would exploit others in this way, despite it potentially being a crime, as the hon. Members for Hove and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out.
The adverts themselves give the impression that there is an equal and mutual, if not quite consensual, exchange of commodities: “You have something I want; I have something you want.” For people facing destitution and homelessness, it could seem like a rational solution to their problems. On the face of it, taking up such an agreement could, for some, be a way of alleviating financial difficulties or a stopgap to get them through a difficult time.
However, it is unlikely that the situation would ever unfold to be a mutually beneficial exchange—it is a gateway to exploitation. It is my fear that rent is offered in exchange for consent, effectively buying it, which diminishes completely the validity of that consent. Once those boundaries have been worn away, the potential for further abuse is huge.
The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned students getting into this situation, and the National Union of Students Scotland has been campaigning vociferously on the issue. Students, perhaps moving away from home for the first time, could be very vulnerable to being exploited in this way. I am concerned that the behaviour of these landlords could well be a path into an even more sinister situation, because once the relationship is established, the concept of choice can soon disappear. The clear and indisputable imbalance of power could lead to coercion, control, and physical as well as sexual violence. A tenant, for want of a better word, in this situation is at the mercy of the landlord’s whims, simply because there is nowhere else to go and little by way of choice. Apart from the practical considerations, there is a risk to that person’s reputation and status. It may be difficult for them to seek help to escape the situation, because of the shame and stigma associated with exchanging sex for rent, as well as the risk of conviction, as the hon. Member for Hove wisely pointed out.
The wording of the adverts themselves reveal a predatory, entitled attitude, which is extremely concerning. Here are a few examples of adverts I found in Glasgow from decidedly creepy men. All of these have come from Craigslist and some of them went up in the past few days. The first says:
“Temporary free room for open-minded females. Please get in touch with a picture of yourself to discuss further.”
A second says:
“Ideally you would be bi or curious and of course respectful”,
with possibly free accommodation for the right person. A third says:
“Looking to share with the right girl with mutually beneficial agreements meaning adult relationship. All board lodgings amenities are free.”
A fourth, which went up on Craigslist only yesterday, says:
“Free room available for a female on occasional basis…discreet.”
Those placing the adverts evidently feel entitled to make demands and emboldened enough to set out their intentions clearly. There is no ambiguity, if we read between the lines. Most are aimed at women, although some are looking for young men. Young people seem to be at particular risk, and this has not come about for no reason. The hon. Member for Bath mentioned housing shortages.
Is it not the case that that while offline advertising is clearly illegal, online advertising is the biggest problem? That is why I welcome the news, as I understand it, that the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines will be reviewed in the new year. I hope the hon. Lady will welcome that too.
I absolutely would, because it is clear that people are able to get away with things in this grey area. For some young people, the threat of homelessness is very real. Under the UK Tory Government, the safety nets have been all but decimated. Housing benefit has been restricted. Even though the UK Government U-turned on their plans to restrict it to 18 to 21-year-olds—something that we never did in Scotland—there are still limitations on single people renting privately under the age of 35. I am 36, and I am not even sure that I would count as a young person, but that seems to be the UK Government’s definition of being young and, therefore, having less choice in the options one can take up.
Those under the age of 25 are not entitled to the same minimum wage as other people, despite the unfairness of this situation being brought to the attention of Ministers by me and by others on umpteen occasions. I draw the Minister’s attention to the Young Women’s Trust “Paid Less, Not Worth Less” campaign, and to the video on its Twitter account of Nia’s story, which outlines how she had to move back home due to low wages. She had the option of moving back home, but not all young people have that option. They may have moved out because of overcrowded housing or other issues, but not everybody can go back home. Some young people may be forced to take more drastic steps. For vulnerable young people who do not have the support of their family, there is an increasing risk of being drawn into a cycle of sexual exploitation and abuse. Once that is behind closed doors, it can be very difficult for young people to seek help.
Evidence from other countries shows that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are a much higher risk category and we should think of them specifically. It is a heart-breaking reality that although legislation and many attitudes have changed, some people’s attitudes have not. A study by the Albert Kennedy Trust showed that LGBT young people make up 24% of the homeless population, which is hugely disproportionate, and often this is due to rejection by their families. That leaves them at a much higher risk of sexual exploitation, and we should be doing more as policy makers to address this.
There is also significant risk to those who have insecure immigration status and no recourse to public funds. People in that situation are very vulnerable and often under the radar, and may face a choice between sleeping rough or doing what they have to just to keep a roof over their head. For women, the prospect of sleeping rough or at least having a roof over their head is a no-brainer. They will take what steps they can to keep themselves off of the street, because the risk there is so much greater. This is a further symptom of the hostile environment, and the UK Government ought to be taking the impact of that seriously.
While the flagrant advertising of sex for rent is worrying and upsetting, what is really concerning is the under-the-radar predatory activity that is difficult to find, difficult to measure and difficult to prevent. It seems to me that the best course of action is to make sure that the safety nets are put in place, so that fewer people face the risk of homelessness in the first place. The UK Government must absolutely clear up this grey area in law. It is encouraging that, as the hon. Member for Bath said, CPS guidelines are changing, but we need to see the details and how it will tackle the issue.
The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the strength of the law in Northern Ireland, which is encouraging. I urge the Minister to engage with the Scottish Government and the “Equally Safe” work that we are doing, which looks very closely at how we can tackle exploitation and violence against women and girls. I thank the hon. Member for Hove for introducing this debate and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) on securing this debate and thank him for his pioneering campaign in bringing this issue to the attention of the House.
Rogue landlords are taking advantage of the housing crisis by offering rooms, quite openly, for free in exchange for “company” or “benefits”—or, to put it more bluntly, for sex. Frustratingly, despite confirmation from the Government that sex for rent is in breach of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, there is little evidence to suggest that any action has yet been taken to punish those preying on innocent victims. I find it unbelievable—despite the Government’s assurances that they are tackling this—that the perpetrators do not even seem to hide what they are doing, and yet there seem to be no arrests. If someone goes online it does not take long to find blatant adverts:
“Free rooms to spare for women willing to carry out household chores naked”
“Flats to rent, tenants with benefits. Must reply with a picture.”
That is illegal. It is sickening exploitation of people who are caught in a spiralling struggle to find the funds to keep a roof over their head, and I ask the Minister how it has been allowed to happen without more thorough investigations and prosecutions.
Action needs to be taken not only against the landlords placing the adverts, who should be prosecuted, but websites such as Craigslist, about which we have heard. On the streets, a pimp would be charged for profiting from the sale of sex, so why is this any different? There is a serious shortfall in the law in this area, which needs to be addressed quickly and effectively, whether by reviewing the law itself, to make it more robust, by better enforcement, or—as I suspect—a mixture of the two. The Government need to look very carefully at just how many people are victims of this exploitation, and do something about it.
I am pleased to say that in Wales there is a strong campaign to tackle the problem. While that campaign has highlighted the sad prevalence of the issue across Wales and the scale of the work required to tackle the problem, it has also been an opportunity to show what can be done when the right people work together effectively for a common goal. Particular recognition needs to go to Katie Howells of Merthyr Valleys Homes, who was a leading figure in the campaign, along with my colleague, Welsh Assembly Member Dawn Bowden, who will take part in the launch next week of a new phase of work to tackle sex for rent with a Wales-wide campaign led by women in the housing sector. Here I stand, again telling the Chamber how good the Labour Government in Wales are.
We all share a responsibility to provide a climate of safety where constituents can find a place to live without fear of what it will cost them, and where those who are being exploited have a place to turn to and confidence that the system will prosecute the perpetrators. We need some assurances from the Government that they will commit to strengthen the law and improve levels of enforcement, so that those offering and facilitating sex for rent receive appropriate sentences and punishment, and so that ultimately we end the scourge of sex for rent in all our communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, for what I am sure is the first time. You and I came into this place on the same day, and it is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair.
I hesitate to curtail a promising political career by describing the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) as a friend, but he and I go back a long way in his previous life. We have worked together extremely well over many years, and I have a great deal of respect for him personally and for how he, as others have said, has tirelessly led this campaign and shone a spotlight on something that is genuinely shocking. I thank all Members who have placed on the record some of the language used in some of these advertisements. It is striking how brazen it is. That is a real concern, because it is a sign of perceived normality, which is something we have to reject and counter vigorously, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said so powerfully, because of the cost and the damage that flow from it.
The hon. Member for Hove highlighted that sex for rent is part of a broader challenge for us as a society, which is that the internet in particular is enabling a whole set of activities that exploit the vulnerable in ways that are moving extremely fast and that are difficult to control. Anyone who visits the team working against child sexual exploitation inside the National Crime Agency will understand how fast the landscape is changing and the degree to which the internet enables the most pernicious activity and makes it extremely hard to detect and follow the villains.
I have learned a lot in the debate and I share the concern expressed by hon. Members. On the point made by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), I would welcome further scrutiny by Parliament and by the media. As we know, those mechanisms help to focus minds, sharpen priorities and catalyse action. One thing we cannot do is let this become normal. In London, we are having to counter the profound challenge of the sense of normality around young people carrying knives, which is in a broadly similar space. We cannot let young people grow up feeling that this is normal behaviour, not least because it is against the law.
Let me place on record the Government’s specific position on the offence, rather than relying on ministerial correspondence. Offering accommodation in return for sex is illegal and those who do it can face up to seven years in prison. As the hon. Member for Hove said, in 2017, the previous Secretary of State for Justice confirmed that the practice is illegal by virtue of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Under sections 52 to 54 of the Act, an offence is committed when a person offers accommodation in return for sex, as they are inciting another person to have sex with them in return for payment. Section 52 prohibits causing or inciting prostitution for gain, and section 53 prohibits controlling prostitution for gain. I should make it clear that we expect every report of this offence to be taken seriously.
It is also important to note that the acts of buying and selling sex are not in themselves illegal in England and Wales. However, there are many activities that can be associated with prostitution which are offences, including activities linked to exploitation.
The Minister suggests that any reported offences will be investigated and pursued, but does he accept that one problem is that many people entering into those relationships do not realise the exploitation that they are undergoing or where the law stands, and when they are made aware of it, they are reluctant to come forward because it would mean identifying themselves as a prostitute? Does he accept that we need to tackle the adverts and the people placing them? An offence is committed the second they place them, because that is incitement.
Yes. To be clear, the law applies equally online and offline. I will come on to the particular issue of websites. The hon. Gentleman also makes an important point, which should be part of the conversation with the social media companies, about education and information—not just about the law, but in terms of signposting avenues of support for extremely vulnerable people in this situation. We have to counter any suggestion that it is okay, normal or lawful.
To the hon. Gentleman’s point, which was also made by others, about why there have been no prosecutions even though we are clear about the law—I hope I have clarified the Government’s position on the letter of the law and our expectation that it will be enforced and that every report will be taken seriously—the honest truth is that we do not know how many prosecutions specifically relate to sex for rent. In 2016-17, there were 99 prosecutions for controlling prostitution compared with 100 the previous year, but at this point, our data does not provide the details about how many of those prosecutions relate to sex for rent, as opposed to any other controlling prostitution offence. I suspect that the number is very low.
Informed by this debate, I say to the hon. Gentleman that the policing of the matter is led by police forces, with a certain amount of flexibility as to how they apply the law. Obviously, their prioritisation is set by the local crime plan, which is set by the local police and crime commissioner. However, I undertake to the hon. Gentleman to engage directly with police chiefs and PCCs to get a better understanding of their understanding of the law and their approach to enforcing it. Some areas, such as the city he represents, will obviously have much higher levels of activity and risk than others.
We all understand that we are dealing with a landscape of lots of challenges and pressures on the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, but given the seriousness of the issue and our concerns, I undertake to engage with the police chiefs and PCCs to get their understanding and feedback on their interpretation—or rather the interpretation of the law—the priority they attach to it and some of the challenges they face in enforcing the law. The hon. Gentleman unpicking the underlying psychology and the difficulties that some victims of this crime will have in coming forward and collaborating with and contributing to a prosecution was particularly thoughtful and telling.
I thank the Minister for what he has said so far and for his positive response to our contributions. I remind him of Lord Morrow’s Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, if he would make this practice illegal on the mainland. We are looking for a way forward, so if he has the opportunity, I suggest that he looks at that Act and what was brought in in Northern Ireland through the Northern Ireland Assembly when the opportunity was there. It would work very well here. There has been cross-party support for it at the events we have held here, so I believe it is something that we could move forward on.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the law is clear. The question mark is around how the law is being enforced and what difficulties or challenges our law enforcement community and the criminal justice system have. That is what I would like to understand better. My undertaking to the hon. Member for Hove is that I will go and ask those questions to get better information.
I would like to pick up the points the hon. Gentleman made about websites, technology and the online community. Obviously, we have to work closely with those digital technology companies, but it fits into a broader context where there has been movement. Whether it be the previous Home Secretary’s activity, which I observed directly, to challenge the social media companies on their hosting of terrorist propaganda, or what the current Home Secretary is doing to challenge the social media companies to take more responsibility for their content in relation to child sexual exploitation and serious violence, I can see that that is an ongoing and escalating conversation and a challenge to those enormously powerful companies. They were reluctant to engage with us at the start, because they are desperate to avoid taking responsibility for the content on their platforms, but gradually, month by month, year by year, we feel that we are beginning to make progress at last.
The hon. Gentleman compared and contrasted a couple of websites. He described the very quick, active and socially responsible response of Gumtree to his campaign and his correspondence, and contrasted that with the response of craigslist. Clearly, he has a prejudice against sandal-wearing, cappuccino-swilling Californians, which I urge him to put aside for a minute. [Laughter.] However, there seems to be an issue with craigslist regarding its willingness to engage on this issue. I can say that officials have been frustrated in that respect as well.
I put this issue in the context of the other issues where we have been persistent in challenging digital technology companies to wake up to their responsibilities. That is what we are talking about here, particularly if it involves them in some way enabling an illegal act. If they are doing that, they need to be challenged. Again, I give an undertaking to the hon. Gentleman that I will personally engage with craigslist and discuss the matter directly with the Home Secretary, to see what pressure we can apply from the Home Office and the Government to make the leadership of that organisation engage with this issue in ways that up to this point they have absolutely failed to do. I suggest it will cause quite significant reputational damage for them in the future as awareness of this problem grows, both in this place and outside it.
I thank the Minister sincerely for the way that he has responded, particularly on craigslist, but what will he do if the leadership of craigslist do not engage with him? He says that he will engage with them, but the problem so far is that they will not engage back. When I explain this issue, a lot of people simply cannot understand why we can deal straight away with a brothel or criminal activity on their streets—we can close down buildings and we can move people on—but when such activity takes place online, we seem powerless. That is eroding faith in politics and faith in the ability of the Home Office and our Government to get a grip on a problem.
I accept the challenge. As a Government we are very clear that more needs to be done to tackle online harms. Following the consultation on our internet safety strategy Green Paper, we are committed to introducing further online safety legislation. A joint White Paper on online harms will be published this winter by the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, setting out a range of legislative and non-legislative measures to tackle online harms and setting clear responsibilities for technology companies to keep UK citizens safe.
We are considering the full range of possible solutions and the White Paper will address a wide range of harms, including those that are illegal as well as those that are harmful but not necessarily illegal, and we will develop an approach proportionate to the risks and harms involved. Meanwhile, as I have said, we will continue working to ensure that technology companies meet their responsibilities. We expect all platforms, including craigslist, to have robust policies to remove any adverts promoting exploitation. In general, our approach is to convene, challenge, persuade, and then gradually to lift the big stick of regulation, as far as we can and where that is appropriate. We cannot afford to be complacent. I will engage with the senior leadership of craigslist on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government and I will expect a response from them. If there is scrutiny from parliamentary Committees, I will expect similar respect to be shown to British parliamentarians, representing as we do British citizens, who are not least the company’s customers.
As the hon. Gentleman and other speakers said, although we are talking about the law and enforcement of the law, surely the key to this issue is, as always, prevention and tackling the root causes. The problem is clearly underpinned by the strata of very complicated big issues, such as financial resilience, including that of young people, income and wages, but also—critically—access to affordable housing.
This is not a housing debate but there is a huge amount of activity across Government to increase the supply of affordable housing. We have increased the size of the affordable homes programme, reintroduced social rent and lifted the housing revenue account borrowing cap for local authorities, and we are setting a long-term rent deal for councils and housing associations in England from 2020. We are also very clear that housing associations and local authorities now need to accelerate delivery and build more affordable homes. We know that takes a bit of time, which is why we are committed to making housing for rent more affordable now, including banning lettings fees paid by tenants and capping tenancy deposits. We have to tackle the root causes of this issue.
I will conclude today by making it very clear that the Government share Members’ concerns. The practice of advertising accommodation in return for sex is clearly and profoundly worrying. We are talking about a breach of the law. It is our duty to enforce the law and protect those who are vulnerable from exploitation. And as I have said, the Government will continue to engage with the police to better understand the extent of this practice. I have given some undertakings today, which I will certainly follow up on, and I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Hove and all those who have taken part in this debate for raising awareness of an extremely important and growing issue.
I am extremely grateful to every Member who has taken part in today’s debate. We have shone light on the issue of sex for rent in some detail, not just specifically in the policy area but also geographically; I think we have the whole of the United Kingdom covered here today. This problem affects our entire country, with different parts of the country affected in different ways.
I thank the Minister for the open-hearted way in which he has engaged with the debate and for the commitments that he has given. I am not quite sure how he will respond to me, but I suspect—indeed, I hope—that it will be in writing, and perhaps we can follow up with a meeting. He has given a commitment to speak to chief constables and law enforcement agencies up and down the country, for which I am very grateful, so that we not only clarify the law and the response of our police forces to this issue but tackle in a strident manner—in any manner that will make a difference—craigslist in particular.
If we can crack the craigslist problem, I think that would restore a lot of people’s faith that we in this country can do whatever it takes to protect vulnerable people and that we are entirely on their side. At times like this, people too often feel that we are powerless in the face of global companies, and right now is the time when we should be asserting ourselves. I am therefore very grateful to the Minister and to every other Member who is here for participating in this debate, and I am particularly grateful to you, Mr Pritchard, for your chairmanship.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the offence of sex for rent.