British prostitution laws should be overhauled so that women selling sex are no longer criminalised but buying sex is against the law, a cross-party group of MPs said on Monday.
In the first report of its kind for 20 years the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution said current laws around prostitution were complicated, confusing and ineffectual. The report called for Britain to follow in the path of countries such as Norway and Sweden and make it a criminal act to buy sex.
The year-long parliamentary enquiry argues that prostitution should be seen as violence against women and an affront to sexual equality, but sex workers have reacted furiously to the proposals arguing that the criminalisation of clients will push sex work underground, further stigmatise women and put lives at risk.
The Labour MP Gavin Shuker, the group’s chair, said: “The current UK law is not working. It sends no clear signals about what we consider prostitution to be, in effect prioritising the gratification of punters at the expense of often vulnerable women and girls.”
The report received 413 submissions from feminist groups, charities working with sex workers and sex workers themselves, but only 7% of those believed current laws – some dating back to the 1950s – to be effective and consistent in keeping sex workers safe.
“[T]he law is incoherent at best and detrimental at worst,” states the report. “In practice, those who sell sexual services carry the burden of criminality despite being those who are most vulnerable to coercion and violence. This serves to normalise the purchase and stigmatise the sale of sexual services – and undermines efforts to minimise entry into and promote exit from prostitution.”
The report call comes days after the European parliament voted to push the introduction of the “nordic” model of criminalising prostitutes’ clients, but not prostitutes. Sweden made buying sex illegal in 1999 and has been followed by Norway and Iceland, while Denmark and France are also considering introducing similar laws. Buying and selling sex is not currently illegal in the UK but soliciting, pimping, brothel-keeping and kerb-crawling are all criminal activities.
MPs and peers called for the introduction of a new “general offence” banning the purchase of sex while calling for soliciting offences used to prosecute prostitutes to be removed from the statute book.
The group warns that legal loopholes enable men to escape prosecution for abusing girls as young as 13 and fail to protect trafficked women while the legal framework has helped turn Britain into a destination for criminal gangs involved in the sex trade.
Norman Baker, the crime prevention minister, said: “We believe that those who want to leave prostitution should be given every opportunity to find routes out. We will ensure that legislation surrounding prostitution remains effective and continue to work with law enforcement agencies to achieve this.”
Cari Mitchell, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, criticised the report saying it would not stop prostitution or the criminalisation of women. “We are appalled that at a time when benefit cuts and sanctions, lowering wages, increased homelessness, and debt are forcing more women, particularly mothers, into prostitution, the best that MPs can come up with is to increase criminalisation,” she said.
“These proposals will further divert police time and resources from investigating rape, trafficking and other violent crimes to policing consenting sex.”
The ECP and other sex worker rights groups have long campaigned for the introduction of laws similar to those in New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalised and women are allowed to work together in small owner-operated brothels.