Press Release: Decriminalisation of sex workers recommended by Home Affairs Committee

Decriminalisation of sex workers recommended by Home Affairs Select Committee

1 July  2016

The English Collective of Prostitutes welcomes the report from the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) which recommends a change in the law “so that soliciting [a charge used against street-based sex workers] is no longer an offence and so that brothel-keeping provisions allow sex workers to share premises”. Crucially the Committee also calls for a law to delete “previous convictions and cautions for prostitution from the record of sex workers”. Credit for this victory belongs to the international movement for decriminalisation spearheaded by grassroots sex workers over 40 years.

Laura Watson, from the ECP commented.

“This report is enormously important and will have an immediate impact. Sex workers will feel more able to work together improving safety and abolishing criminal records will remove the greatest obstacle to sex workers being able to leave prostitution if they want to and get another job.”

“There should be an immediate moratorium on arrests, raids and prosecutions. 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. Civil orders against street based sex workers such as Section 35 dispersal orders must also be abolished and 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”. 

We call on the Home Affairs Select Committee to go further and repeal all the laws that put sex workers in danger. Decriminalisation as introduced in New Zealand in 2003 was acknowledged by the Committee as having “resulted in a number of benefits, including a clear policy message, better conditions for sex workers, improved cooperation between sex workers and the police, and no detectable increase in the size of the sex industry or exploitation of sex workers”.

The Committee comments on other legal models, specifically the law introduced in Sweden in 1999 to criminalise clients. It acknowledges that it is “a fundamentally different legislative approach to prostitution from that which is currently in place in England and Wales. It is based on the premise that prostitution is morally wrong and should therefore be illegal, whereas at present the law makes no such moral judgement”.

Sweden claimed to decriminalise sex workers. It did not. Laws that criminalise someone who “promotes or improperly financially exploits a person’s engagement in casual sexual relations in return for payment “ are used against women working together collectively and consensually.

Amnesty International’s recent investigation into the working of a similar “sex purchase law” in Norway found that it has been used to harass and victimise sex workers and that sex workers working together consensually and collectively are targeted by police surveillance and intelligence gathering operations.

The Committee doesn’t comment on the rise in prostitution due to austerity and the cuts and makes no recommendations for a change in law or policy on this. This is something that could usefully be considered in the final report, due to be published in the autumn. Benefit sanctions, the benefit cap and other cuts have disproportionately affected women and have been identified specifically as the reason for the big increase in prostitution in some areas. Doncaster reports a 60 per cent increase with charities saying: “Women are being forced to sell sex for £5 because of benefit sanctions.”  Sheffield reports a 166% increase (2014) while charity workers in Hull report: “ . . . women who are literally starving and they are out there to feed themselves.”

HASC calls on the government to act urgently. This is timely considering the crisis caused by criminalisation. Thousands of women each year are raided, arrested, cautioned, and even imprisoned every year. Violence is increasing and as HASC reports only 25% of sex workers report violence to the police. Police who gave evidence to the Inquiry acknowledged that “simple enforcement does not produce sustainable outcomes and can actually increase the vulnerability of sex workers to violent attack”.

The Home Affairs Select Committee is the most prestigious parliamentary body to look at the issue of prostitution. Its recommendations are a major step towards full decriminalisation of sex work in the UK. They come as support for decriminalisation is growing including from prominent bodies like Amnesty International, the Royal College of Nursing, Women Against Rape and  Hampshire Women’s Institute.

As HASC prepares its final report we urge it to call for: 

  • An immediate moratorium on arrests, raids and prosecutions of sex workers on the street and working together in premises, pending the introduction of legislation to decriminalise sex workers.
  • The abolition of civil orders used against street-based sex workers, such as Section 35 dispersal orders.
  • The Home Office to withdraw from cases where Romanian sex workers are facing deportation on grounds that sex work is not a ‘legitimate form of work.
  • Convictions to be expunged from sex workers records and convictions overturned. For sex workers in prison this would mean they should be released.
  • Kerb-crawling legislation to be abolished. Once it has been accepted that criminalisation makes it more dangerous for sex workers to work, there can be no justification for retaining a law that criminalises clients. Any criminalisation of the transaction of exchanging sex for money affects sex workers first and foremost. Street-based sex workers take measures to reduce risks including: working with others who record license plate numbers; avoiding isolated areas when working; sharing information regarding problematic clients and screening clients. All this impossible if clients are rushing to avoid detection from police.
  • Abolition of brothel-keeping and controlling legislation or for those laws to be amended to ensure that they are only used when force and/or coercion are involved.
  • Abolition of benefit cuts and sanctions so that no-one is pushed into prostitution for lack of economic alternatives. The reinstatement of income support for mothers.

English Collective of Prostitutes
Crossroads Women’s Centre
25 Wolsey Mews
Tel: 020 7482 2496
Fax: 020 7267 7297