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Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The Minister told us that the penalty would be a level 5 fine and a maximum of six months' imprisonment. He said that that demonstrated the Government's view of the seriousness of the crime. Can he give us some examples of other crimes for which the penalty is a level 5 fine and six months' imprisonment?
Mr. Clarke: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that information off the cuff. One of the pieces of advice that I have given myself--and usually taken--is not to give off-the-cuff information across the Floor of the House as it might not be well-informed. However, we take the matter extremely seriously, particularly the trafficking in people for prostitution. There is a whole range of other offences that are designed to deal with people who traffic in migrants in that way.
Mr. Heald: The amendments were moved in the other place by the noble Baroness Buscombe, and I would like to pay tribute to the campaign that she and others have waged on the issue. Westminster city council was particularly concerned about this issue, which has also concerned hon. Members for many years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) will recall that Olga Maitland also campaigned on the issue--
The concern that prompted the amendment was that people in areas such as Brighton and Hove, and central London, should not have to be confronted with sordid images when they are simply trying to make a telephone call. It is also expensive for an organisation such as British Telecom, which spends £250,000 a year clearing the cards from its 1,000 boxes in central London. The measure will allow people to make telephone calls without being pestered in that way.
It is right that relatively serious penalties should be applied, for the reasons that the Minister mentioned. Those who are involved in the trade are often making considerable sums of money. If there are persistent offenders who, time and again, place cards in boxes and will not learn their lesson, tough penalties should be available to deal with them.
Mr. Simon Hughes: We agree strongly with the need to take action on this activity. It is offensive that every phone box in London is littered with such cards. As the Minister said, it is bad enough for the mass of the population, but it is particularly offensive to many women and inappropriate and unsuitable for children, as well as being unhelpful. We need to protect the public interest, albeit in what is technically private space. I am glad to hear that the private telephone companies are also taking their share of the work.
I hope that when the police take action, with the support of local authorities such as Westminster, which has been assiduous in the matter, they will concentrate not on the runners--the people who are paid a bit of pocket money to put the cards in the phone boxes--but on the people who are making a lot of money behind the scenes. They are the big fish who need to be caught because they make a lot of money exploiting people in the sex trade.
We must also revisit the wider debate. We are living a fiction in this country about prostitution. Like abortion, it has always happened and will always happen. If we delude ourselves into thinking that the present laws against it will stop it, we will deceive the public whom we are here to represent. It is right to deal with the issue of the cards in this Bill, but I hope that whichever party or parties are in government after the election, they will be brave enough to reconsider the law on prostitution.
Mr. Clarke: Amendments Nos. 25 and 41 will have the effect of removing part 2, on information disclosure for the purposes of criminal proceedings, from the Bill. Amendment No. 36 is a drafting amendment consequential on the removal of the words in amendment No. 37, which is consequential on the removal of part 2 from the Bill. Amendments Nos. 38 and 40 are also consequential.
Mr. Heald: I am somewhat surprised by the Minister's remarks, because Lord Bassam said that he was happy to be associated with the amendments. He also complimented Lord Cope on the cogent way in which he had expressed the Opposition's view on the Bill. Lord Bassam also admitted that the Government's proposals required better and more detailed evaluation. He certainly seemed to say that he did not disagree with the amendments.
Mr. Clarke: My noble Friend Lord Bassam was trying to pay tribute to the way in which Front Benchers had tried to work together to reach solutions in everybody's interest. However, on the substance of policy, we do not agree with two groups of amendments before us today--the current group and the other on clause 126, which deals with police conduct. We will accept the amendments because of our desire to get the whole Bill through.
Mr. Heald: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The amendments were jointly tabled by the Government and the official Opposition in the other place. Is it in order for the Minister to resile from them?
Mr. Clarke: I am trying to express the Government's position as clearly as I can. Part 2 would have implemented Government policy to improve the ability of public authorities to disclose information for the purposes of criminal investigations or proceedings. That is an important part of the Government's overall strategy in the fight against crime and it is why I am disappointed that those clauses are being removed.
Given the short time available to complete the parliamentary stages of the Bill, we have decided to give further scrutiny to that part of the legislation. If the Government are re-elected, we will consider the best way to proceed with those useful reforms and how to use other legislative vehicles to do so.
Mr. Hawkins: I am afraid that we have just seen a most extraordinary approach to the amendments by the Minister, who seeks to reject everything that Lord Bassam said in jointly tabling the amendments with the official Opposition in the other place. It simply is not good enough for a Minister in the Lords to table amendments jointly with the Opposition and then for this Minister to say that the Government do not really agree with them. The House will also have noted the attitude of the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), who said a moment ago that the Minister could do anything. That has been the approach of the Government for the past four years
Mr. Hawkins: No, because the Minister is trying to resile from what Lord Bassam said in jointly tabling the amendments and accepting the Government's defeat on amendment No. 35. I have made the point repeatedly that we have had inadequate time to debate the Government's concessions and, with only two minutes left this afternoon, it is indisputable that the Government have had to abandon the whole of part 2 as a result of these jointly tabled amendments.