The Liberal Democrats’ amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill creating a loophole in the proposed new laws on prostitution were finally reached at about 9.40pm last night. (I think the LibDems had been hoping to spin out the debates on earlier amendments with a view to the debate on prostitution being held over until Thursday.)
The Bill would have made it an offence for someone to purchase sex from another person, if that person was trafficked or had been coerced into being a prostitute. This would have been a “strict liability” offence – ie it would not be a defence to say that the person charged had not known that the prostitute had been trafficked or coerced.
The LibDems were proposing that such a defence should be possible. The Conservatives were on a free vote (although their front-bench spokesperson spoke in support of the LibDems) and in practice they were split between those supporting the Government and those supporting the LibDems (mirroring the national – more generic – dispute within the Conservative Party between traditionalist Tories and the libertarians).
Despite the lateness of the hour, there was an excellent debate, which you can read here, with excellent speeches from John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, and from the Attorney General, Baroness Patricia Scotland.
As 11.00pm approached, the Chamber slowly filled up with Labour Peers and it became obvious that, despite a speech from the Conservative front-bench taking the libertarian line, the LibDem amendment would be defeated. When the LibDem spokesperson responded to the debate, she indicated that she would withdraw the amendment rather than have it defeated. (This would have given her the opportunity to reintroduce it next week at Third Reading.) She therefore sought ‘leave to withdraw’ – which is normally automatically given. However, when this was put to the House, a number of us growled ‘No’ which meant that the substantive amendment had to be put. A voice vote was taken with a handful saying ‘Content’ against a roar of ‘Not Content’. From the Woolsack it was suggested that the ‘I think the Not Contents have it’ and when – unusually – this did not produce a counter-shout of ‘Content’, it was declared that ‘The Not Contents have it’ and the amendment was defeated without a Division.