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
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.