New proposals to the government have recommended decriminalising those who sell sexual services but to introduce new laws making it illegal to buy them, meaning that prostitutes would no longer face prosecution but the punter would.
Why do we need to reform the prostitution laws in the UK?
The proposals have been made by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, following a significant inquiry into sex trafficking in the UK. They heard evidence of over 212 ongoing police operations in the UK into modern slavery which involved sexual exploitation by criminal gangs. Evidence gathered showed those being exploited were mainly female foreign nations. The figures presented to the APPG by the National Crime Agency suggesting that anywhere between 10,000 – 13,000 victims of human trafficking had been brought into the UK, are thought to be the tip of the iceberg.
The UK are committed to ending modern slavery and human trafficking but the parliamentary group believe the current strategies are failing. Their recommendation is that Britain must become a hostile destination for sex trafficking and so drastic action is required. They concluded that it is only a minority of men in the UK who pay for sex but those who do are predominately young professionals who would alter their behaviour if the law made it clear that what they were doing was wrong. In Sweden, a country that has made the purchase of sex illegal supported this finding. Gavin Shukar MP, chair of the APPG commented, “huge numbers of women [are] being brought in by these groups to service British men who have an expectation of an absolute right to buy sex.”
Putting an end to sex trafficking
The APPG also highlighted concerns that sex traffickers bring victims into those countries where prostitution is legal and the UK is considered a low risk destination for them. The exchange of money for sex is not in itself a crime in England and Wales. We tolerate prostitution but not encourage it and it will only be tolerated until it offends public order and decency. This has led many to consider it a grey area but it’s far from that. The laws in place are well defined but the fact they have been brought in piecemeal over a number of years mean they are not always easy to understand. The general position regarding the sale of sex in England and Wales is that it is illegal to do so in a public place. The laws also prevent the establishment of brothels and criminalise those who earn from the control of prostitution.
What does the law say about prostitution in the UK?
Traditionally the burden of the law has not fallen on those who create the demand for the sex industry. It’s only in recent times we’ve seen this area develop slightly with the introduction of offences of kerb crawling and paying for the sexual services of a prostitute who has been subject to force.
The offence of controlling prostitution for gain (under the Sexual Offences Act 2003) is one of our most significant laws relating to the sale of sex. This is certainly a law which could be used to prosecute any of those involved in the management of brothels or those organising the sale of sexual services such as for escort agencies. Control doesn’t mean coercing or forcing that person. It is control of the activities. It could be as simple as arranging clients. However, the APPG still feel that the laws in place are not sufficient to deal with the levels of sexual exploitation by criminal gangs. The original issue they were asked to advise on was the prevalence of pop up brothels, where hotels or rental accommodation is being utilised as brothels for short periods of time before the criminal gangs move on meaning their activities are difficult to detect, prevent and prosecute.
Allowing prostitution to be regulated?
One of the complaints made about our current legal regime has been that it pushes the sex industry out of the public gaze, it prevents sex workers having the safety of working with others and this unregulated industry exists in the shadows, making prostitutes vulnerable and those who are already in a vulnerable position, even more so. Many have felt that reform in this area is long overdue. There is a call by those who do sell sexual services and insist they are not being exploited to allow them to trade safely.
However, if this recommendation of making it illegal to purchase sexual services for money is accepted by the government it would radically alter the position and would bring the sex industry to a virtual end. The logic is that something drastic needs to happen to address human trafficking and what is intended by the parliamentary group is to send a clear message that it is unacceptable to pay for sex.