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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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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