Laura Lee, 5th July 2016

In an interim report published today, Friday 1 July 2016, the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) says that soliciting by sex workers, and sex workers sharing premises, should be decriminalised. The Committee says the Home Office should immediately change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and brothel-keeping laws allow sex workers to share premises, without losing the ability to prosecute those who use brothels to control or exploit sex workers. There must be zero tolerance of the organised criminal exploitation of sex workers. The Home Office should also legislate to delete previous convictions and cautions for prostitution from the record of sex workers, as these records make it much more difficult for people to move out of prostitution into other forms of work if they wish to.

• Around 11% of British men aged 16-74 have paid for sex on at least one occasion, which equates to 2.3 million individuals.

• The number of sex workers in the UK is estimated to be around 72,800 with about 32,000 working in London.

• Sex workers have an average of 25 clients per week paying an average of £78 per visit.

• In 2014–15, there were 456 prosecutions of sex workers for loitering and soliciting.

• An estimated 152 sex workers were murdered between 1990 and 2015. 49% of sex workers (in one survey) said that they were worried about their safety.

• There were 1,139 victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation in 2014 and 248 in April to June 2015 (following implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015)

With regards to changing the laws on buying sex, this inquiry will continue. The Committee will be seeking further evidence on the impacts of the recently introduced sex buyer laws in Northern Ireland and France, and the model of regulation used in for example New Zealand, to make a better assessment for its final report. The laws on prostitution need ultimately to be reconsidered in the round, not least to give the police much more clarity on where their priorities should lie and how to tackle the exploitation and trafficking associated with the sex industry.

Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is an important and separate issue from prostitution involving consenting adults. It is too early to assess the impact of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 on levels of trafficking, but the Crown Prosecution Service identified 248 victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation in the first three months of the Act’s operation, compared to 1,139 in 2014.

Despite the obvious difficulties involved in getting data on an essentially covert industry, the Committee is “dismayed” at the poor quality of information available about the extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales. The figures cited above must be considered in this context. Without a proper evidence base, the Government cannot make informed decisions about the effectiveness of current legislation and policies, and cannot target funding and support interventions effectively. The Home Office should commission an in-depth research study on the current extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales, within the next 12 months.

Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“This is the first time that Parliament has considered the issue of prostitution in the round for decades. It is a polarising subject with strong views on all sides. This interim report will be followed by final recommendations, when we consider other options, including the different approaches adopted by other countries.

As a first step, there has been universal agreement that elements of the present law are unsatisfactory. Treating soliciting as a criminal offence is having an adverse effect, and it is wrong that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be penalised and stigmatised in this way. The criminalisation of sex workers should therefore end.

The current law on brothel keeping also means sex-workers can be too afraid of prosecution to work together at the same premises, which can often compromise their safety. There must however be zero tolerance of the organised criminal exploitation of sex workers, and changes to legislation should not lessen the Home Office’s ability to prosecute those engaged in exploitation.

The Committee will evaluate a number of the alternative models as this inquiry continues, including the sex-buyers law as operated in Sweden, the full decriminalised model used in Denmark, and the legalised model used in Germany and the Netherlands.”

As a sex worker who gave evidence to the Committee, it goes without saying I’m over the moon. They listened. Some valuable points to take away from the report are –

An acknowledgement of the stigma we face

An acknowledgement that the End Demand approach is not effective, it merely displaces

An acknowledgement that trafficking and consenting adults engaged in paid sex are entirely different

It should be noted that this is an interim report, and their investigations are ongoing, with particular reference to the selling element of a paid sex transaction. But it’s a massive step forward in the right direction. There can only be one decision with regard to the criminalisation of the purchase of sex when you weigh up all of the evidence – it simply doesn’t work. More than that, it is highly injurious to the one group of people it purports to help, sex workers. In short, you cannot criminalise just one half of a transaction, the effects are felt by all parties.

In their statement today, Laura Watson of the English Collective of Prostitutes said –

“There should be an immediate moratorium on arrests, raids and prosecutions. Just today we heard from a woman whose premises was raided and closed. All her accounts have been frozen and she was left with £50 to feed her children pending charges for brothel-keeping being brought against her. Civil orders against street based sex workers such as Section 35 dispersal orders must also be abolished and the Home Office should withdraw from cases we are fighting where Romanian sex workers are facing deportation on grounds that sex work is not a ‘legitimate form of work’”.

A Message to Lawmakers

We call on the Home Affairs Select Committee to go further and repeal all the laws that put sex workers in danger. New Zealand decriminalised in 2003 with verifiable success. Amnesty International did a comprehensive examination of the impact of the law to criminalise clients in Norway and found that sex workers face forced evictions, surveillance, prosecutions and increased stigma. Migrant workers are disproportionally targeted. Shockingly “police are using sex workers reports of violence and crimes against them as evidence to facilitate their eviction and/or deportation.”

We are drafting legislation to decriminalise prostitution in the UK which will be ready to present in the autumn. We ask to meet with committee members as soon as possible to discuss how this should be framed in line with their recommendations.”

I wish the ECP the very best with their decriminalisation legislation in England, in Scotland we too are bringing forward legislation to decriminalise. Now more than ever, the Irish Committee on Justice and Equality need to carefully consider the global movement towards decriminalisation before bringing in a law which is contrary to human rights. This is a very exciting time for sex workers’ rights, and it is a movement gaining strength by the day, not to mention one I am immensely proud to be a part of.

Post by Sex Workers Rights Activist
Laura Lee