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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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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.