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Tagged In:  Criminal Justice

“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” says a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. 

It’s a complex area to legislate on though. Even the Committee concedes that the arguments either for or against decriminalising sex work are largely based on “different moral viewpoints on the legitimacy of prostitution”, but its recommendations are bold.

It calls for the Home Office to legislate to effectively ‘wipe the record’ of sex workers’ previous convictions and cautions for prostitution. Their argument is that these records make it much more difficult for people to leave the world of prostitution behind them.

Firstly, before we examine in more detail what’s being proposed, let’s put the UK prevalence of prostitution into context.

Key facts:

  • There are almost 73,000 sex workers in the UK, with about 32,000 working in London.
  • 11% of British men aged 16–74 (2.3 million men) have paid for sex on at least once
  • 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.
  • 152 sex workers were murdered between 1990 and 2015. 
  • 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).

Significance of the report

It’s the first time that the decriminalisation of prostitution has been raised at this level in Parliament; the implications are huge even if the report is just an interim one. 

The Committee is in the midst of considering the approaches other countries have taken in decriminalising sex work and whether any of these could work in England and Wales. But, prostitution is a social issue where there are huge differences in legislation, even within Europe. 

What’s more, there are no two countries that operate a single approach in exactly the same way, although there are broad models that could be followed in the event of decriminalisation, including:

  • The introduction of a sex buyer law (the Swedish model); 
  • Decriminalisation of both the sale and purchase of sex (New Zealand and Denmark)
  • A legalised system - where laws are established to control where, when and how prostitution is legally permissible (Netherlands and Germany).

The Swedish model of a sex buyer’s law has gained momentum in recent years. Since its implementation in 1999, which criminalised the purchase of sex, a number of other countries have followed suit, including Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland and France. 

In 2014, the Swedish model received further acclaim when the European Parliament recognised it as one way of combating trafficking and improving gender equality. 

A large proportion of the evidence the Committee received from individuals and organisations was in favour of the introduction of a sex buyer law in England and Wales. This would represent a significant policy change as it would criminalise prostitution, by making the purchase of sexual services illegal. 

Since the introduction sex buyer law, street prostitution in Sweden has reduced by half. Those in support of the introduction of a sex buyer law argue that it is “an effective way of reducing demand for prostitution” and that it would make the UK “a more hostile destination for traffickers”. But could it work over here? 

A number of academics submitted their views that it would not reduce the demand for prostitution, but rather displace it with prostitution being pushed underground rather than at the ‘kerb-side’. 

It seems as if the Committee is heading those concerns, saying:

“We are not yet convinced that the sex buyer law would be effective in reducing demand or in improving the lives of sex workers, either in terms of the living conditions for those who continue to work in prostitution or the effectiveness of services to help them find new ways to earn a living. Evaluations of the impact of sex buyer laws are largely based on data about street prostitution, and therefore offer little insight into the large parts of the sex industry...” 

What about our other options? Other countries have opted to decriminalise prostitution. These include Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Supporters include the World Health Organisation and Amnesty International, both of which argue that criminalising sex workers makes them more vulnerable. But could it work in England and Wales?

Well, the model the Committee has given most attention to is New Zealand’s, which has worked successfully. New Zealand decriminalised prostitution with its Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) in June 2003. It also created a framework to safeguard the human rights of sex workers and protect them from exploitation; promoted the welfare of sex workers; prohibited the use of prostitution of those under 18 years of age, and established a certification regime for brothel operators.

Research suggests that the approach has resulted in better conditions for sex workers and improved cooperation with the police. In the Committee’s continuing inquiry, it will evaluate the extent to which elements of the New Zealand model might be implemented in England and Wales. 

We’ll be keeping a close eye on further reports as the inquiry continues and will keep you posted. 

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