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A long parliamentary inquiry into sex work is taking us one step closer to decriminalisation

Ongoing, nonpartisan and broad political engagement from supporters of sex worker rights might seal the deal.

After a long inquiry into sex work, Parliament’s influential Home Affairs Select Committee has called for reform of the prostitution laws in England and Wales. In an interim report released today, the Committee called for immediate changes to existing legislation, removing the offence of soliciting and allowing sex workers to work together for safety. The committee also called for soliciting offences to be deleted from criminal records.

“Having a criminal record for prostitution-related offences also often creates an unsurmountable barrier . . . It is wrong that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be criminalised, and therefore stigmatised and penalised, in this way,” the report stated.

Importantly, the report draws a clear line between coercion – which is already addressed in law – and voluntary sex work, and eschews moral judgments. It comes after months of evidence-gathering from the Committee, which heard testimony from sex-workers, police, academics and others across a broad variety of perspectives, and travelled to Denmark and Sweden to investigate the legal models employed there.

Although the report does not yet rule on which legislative model best suits England and Wales – the full decriminalisation of sex work, as has operated in New Zealand since 2003, the “sex buyers’ law”, as operates in countries such as Sweden, or legalisation and regulation, as operates in countries like Germany and Denmark – it bemoans the lack of reliable information on sex work:

“We were dismayed to discover the poor quality of information available about the extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales. 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 report called for the Home Office to commission an in-depth study on the extent and nature of sex work in England and Wales within the next year, foregrounding reliable statistics and discarding unreliable data.

Sex workers and allies across the United Kingdom have shouted with joy and wept with relief upon hearing the news of the report.  But sex work organisations emphasise that this report, although warmly welcomed, is only the first step in securing the rights and safety of sex workers; in their view, arrests, raids and deportations must stop immediately in light of the report’s recommendations.

“There should be an immediate moratorium on arrests, raids and prosecutions,” said Laura Watson, spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, in a statement today.

“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 . . . 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’,” she said.

The report is particularly encouraging in its assessment of the woeful absence of reliable information about sex work in society. As a largely underground trade, sex work is difficult for governments and academics to study. People pushed to the margins are less likely to feel safe in contributing to such research. Through efforts of sex worker organisations such as the Sex Worker Open University, many sex workers contributed testimony to the inquiry, but these contributions cannot overcome years and decades of gaps in research.

It is particularly encouraging that the Committee looked at evidence offered by advocates of the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services – the “sex buyer law” – with a sceptical view.  Advocates of this approach claim it reduces demand for sexual services, but the Committee disagreed. It stated:

“We are not yet convinced that the sex buyer law would be effective in reducing demand or in improving the lives of sex workers . . . We are not yet persuaded that the sex buyer law is effective in reducing, rather than simply displacing, demand for prostitution, or in helping the police to tackle the crime and exploitation associated with the sex industry.”

In the next year, sex worker rights activists have a lot to do. Activist groups were at the centre of efforts to mobilise sex workers and pro-decriminalisation academics to contribute to this enquiry, and to make the argument that full decriminalisation for safety’s sake makes the most sense in the UK.

In this tumultuous political period, and with long-time opponents of prostitution such as Theresa May in consideration for the Tory leadership, it is heartening that a multiparty committee has made significant strides towards decriminalisation. Ongoing, nonpartisan and broad political engagement from supporters of sex worker rights might seal the deal.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.