Show Hide image

Leader: Lessons for Labour from an Essex Tory MP

Robert Halfon's call for the reinstatement of the 10p income-tax band could be a winning idea for Miliband.

Rarely in recent history has the Conservatives’ self-image as the natural party of government seemed less appropriate. Unappeased by David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, Tory MPs have taken to plotting and scheming against the Prime Minister even as his poll ratings remain better than those of his party.

The same malcontents went on to vote against same-sex marriage in greater numbers than in favour of it, sabotaging a rare opportunity for Mr Cameron to prove that his party had changed. This is not the party of “modern, compassionate” Conservatism that he promised to build when he was elected leader in 2005.

Faced with the compromises of coalition, Tory MPs remain aggrieved by Mr Cameron’s failure to win a majority against an enfeebled Labour Party in 2010. Yet their belief that he did so because he was insufficiently Conservative is delusional. The party remained untrusted by public-sector workers, by northerners and Scots and, most notably, by ethnic minorities, just 16 per cent of whom voted Conservative.

Yet beyond the party’s revanchist wing there are Conservatives beginning to think hard about how they can avoid a similar failure in 2015. One of them is Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow, one of the Essex new towns built after the war. Elected in 2010 at the third time of trying (he lost the bellwether constituency by just 97 votes in 2005), Mr Halfon recognises that, in order to win a majority, the Tories must attract more low-income and working-class voters and that to do so the party must focus relentlessly on reducing the cost of living.

His perspective is shaped by the Essex constituency he represents, where most voters earn less than the national median wage and where 30 per cent live in social housing. He led the successful campaign for a freeze in fuel duty and, in an insightful pamphlet, Stop the union-bashing, called for the Conser­vatives to end their hostility towards trade unions, “the very core of the Big Society”, and to offer free party membership to all union members.

In anticipation of the Budget on 20 March, Mr Halfon has made his most audacious proposal yet. The MP is calling for the reinstatement of the 10p income-tax band infamously abolished by Gordon Brown in his valedictory Budget in 2007. After trying and failing to persuade George Osborne not to scrap the 50p top income-tax rate (“At a stroke, it would allow our opponents to re-characterise the Conservatives as being the party of the rich,” he wrote presciently in an article for ConservativeHome in October 2011), Mr Halfon argues that his party must show that it is “not just interested in tax cuts for the rich”.

He would restore the 10p tax band for earnings between the personal allowance, which will rise to £9,440 in April, and £12,000, a measure worth £256 to basic-rate taxpayers. Displaying the kind of political astuteness that Mr Osborne has recently lacked, he has proposed meeting the £6bn-a-year cost of the policy by ring-fencing revenue from the 45p top rate of tax in an explicit act of redistribution. The Treasury, unsurprisingly, is beginning to take an interest.

Mr Halfon is right to seek to reduce the tax burden for low earners. Since the removal of the 10p tax rate, individuals pay a de facto marginal rate of 32 per cent (20 per cent income tax and 12 per cent National Insurance) on all earnings above the personal allowance. This, combined with VAT of 20 per cent, record petrol prices, ever-rising train fares and pension contributions and, for young people, student loan repayments, has squeezed real incomes at a rate unknown at any other point in modern times.

Ed Miliband, to his credit, was quicker to highlight this phenomenon than either his Conservative or Liberal Democrat counterparts. But while speaking encouragingly of how a Labour government could widen payment of the living wage, for instance by making it a condition of public-sector contracts, he has had little to say about reducing the tax burden. True, Labour has proposed a reduction in VAT from 20 per cent back to 17.5 per cent but as a stimulus measure this would, by definition, be temporary. With economic conditions so volatile, Mr Miliband is right not to commit to expensive tax cuts at this stage of the electoral cycle. But he should begin to offer voters some indication of his direction of travel.

In an interview with the New Statesman last year, the Labour leader rightly observed that “people are out of love with an uncontrolled market but they’re certainly not in love with a remote state”. By refusing to countenance tax cuts for low and middle earners (we consider National Insurance to be a form of income tax), Mr Miliband is in danger of reverting to statist type. In the lead-up to an election that will be defined by the issue of living standards, Labour must begin work now on a range of measures to ease the burden on low-income families – and it could do worse than seek to learn from Mr Halfon.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
Show Hide image

Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.