The case for the Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex Bill

Rhoda Grant MSP explains why she thinks the arguments made against the Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex Bill are flawed.

On the 29 May I published the results of the consultation for my proposed Bill on the criminalisation of the purchase of sex. The respondents were overwhelmingly, 80 per cent, in favour of this Bill. Since its publication I have been continually attacked by those against the Bill who have claimed that I have misrepresented the breadth of support. In fact they have presented a number of falsehoods about the Bill via a number of platforms including this one. I find myself constantly defending my position against unfounded allegations and yet no-one has properly questioned the assertions made by the "Sex Workers’ Lobby". I find this baffling and therefore would like to take the opportunity to address their arguments.

I recently received this from an exited prostitute:

The only way to describe my experience was HELL it’s like you are selling your soul over to the devil when you get into prostitution, the devils being…… ,  your freedom gets taken away completely, you automatically become a dolly money making machine for them and while working for…… you were reminded every day that you’re worthless and couldn't do better in life apart from prostitution….people are not aware of what happens  behind closed doors in the brothel ....the minute you walk in you are scared for life ...it’s like being raped 10 times a day and pimps telling you its ok ??? You lose everything dignity, Identity, respect and happiness.

This is by no means a one off case but the daily reality for many prostitutes. With this knowledge I am expected to turn a blind eye in order that those who profit from and cause this misery can continue their activity unrestrained. I cannot.

The current laws surrounding prostitution penalise women and only deal with public nuisance – none of them protect those who are prostituted. The Bill I propose is for the criminalisation of the purchase of sex which aims to redress this imbalance in our current laws. In no other circumstance does our law criminalise the victim but not the perpetrator! The purpose of this legislation would be to decrease demand and thereby begin to tackle an industry that preys on vulnerable people.

My consultation proved that a wide range of society agrees with me, including NHS Scotland, many Violence Against Women partnerships and organisations that provide support to working prostitutes. I do not just have support from feminist groups and religious organisations as my opponents have suggested. This is just one of many false allegations I have had to defend against, such as the suggestion that I have ignored the views of those who work and have worked in prostitution. This is again not true; the pro-lobby have simply ignored the supportive responses I received from women that have exited prostitution. Indeed, I have also met with a wide range of people including working prostitutes and other individuals involved with support organisations.       

There has been little scrutiny of the position put forward by the "Sex Workers’ Lobby". In particular, this lobby has made two adamant petitions, one for decriminalisation or legislation for the industry and the other that said industry should be allowed to regulate itself. Their argument for self-regulation is that they understand the industry best and are therefore best equipped to tackle abuses. There is no evidence to support this argument as all reports indicate that abuse is rampant within the industry. They suggest that "clients" are best placed to report abuse. However these clients have little concern for prostitutes. We would need evidence to demonstrate that they are reporting instances of trafficking in great numbers and where is it?  Legislation needs to be implemented that protects vulnerable people against organisations and individuals that profit from them. No industry can successfully self-regulate because it is in its interest to make profits.  

However, I would also like to challenge the notion that decriminalisation or legislation would protect vulnerable people being abused in this industry. The oft-cited example is New Zealand which has decriminalised all aspects of the sex industry. There are calls to introduce this model here. However, social policy cannot be looked at in isolation and New Zealand exists in a very different context to us. Their immigration polices help to ensure that people who enter the country are protected through a buddy scheme. The "Sex Workers’ Lobby" rarely acknowledges the examples closer to home, such as the Netherlands and Germany, which have tried less successfully to legalise and regulate the industry. It simply has not worked; Amsterdam has acknowledged that there is an huge illegal market and that women are still being abused. Looking at the UNODC report on trafficking it is clear that The Netherlands is seen as a more attractive destination than Sweden. The most conservative estimate is that 8 per cent out of the entire industry is comprised of trafficked individuals - that is more than 1,000 people, but it could be many more. This does not take into account the huge number of people coerced into the industry due to poverty. There is a similar story in Germany, a recent documentary into the industry revealed that decriminalisation has increased demand and actually made sex cheaper. The brothel owners are the people benefiting from this, not the prostitutes.

It has been claimed that Human Rights Groups and the UN have called for the decriminalisation of prostitution and that my Bill is going against them. This again is not the full story. My Bill is not criminalising the women (and men) being prostituted, but rather the clients that are fuelling the industry. The organisations quoted state that they are against the increased criminalisation of victims of this industry - so am I!  

I do not claim that my Bill would be a silver bullet in tackling the abuse of prostitution. It needs to be coupled with greater education, more exit services and initiatives that help to tackle the vast inequalities that still remain in our society that coerce people into prostitution. It is clear to me that dealing with demand will help. The "Sex Workers’ Lobby’s" arguments against my Bill need to be scrutinised and we should ask how their arguments are actually going to help protect those vulnerable people who are being repeatedly abused on a daily basis. Is it in their financial interest that this abuse continues?

Rhoda Grant is the Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands

The Scottish Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images
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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.