Decriminalisation of prostitution:
Report of parliamentary symposium, 3 November 2015, House of Commons.
The symposium ‘Decriminalisation of Prostitution: the Evidence’ took place on 3 November 2015 at the House of Commons. It brought together for the first time in the UK the largest and most robust body of evidence to date on decriminalisation. There were expert contributions from sex workers from ten countries, senior academics from a range of universities, and representatives from prestigious organisations such as Women Against Rape and the Hampshire Women’s Institute.
The symposium was hosted by John McDonnell MP (now Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer) who has worked with the English Collective of Prostitutes for many years, and was attended by cross-party Members of Parliament and a London Assembly member.
This report includes the key findings and the full transcript of the evidence submitted on the day and in writing. It provides a definitive source of statistical and qualitative information to inform law and policy.
The evidence revealed the wide-ranging effects of criminalisation on sex workers and their families, and identified the changes that must go side by side with decriminalisation. The most urgent priorities are the effective implementation of the laws against rape and other violence, and measures to tackle rising poverty and homelessness.
The call for decriminalisation has since been taken up by the influential Home Affairs Select Committee which in July 2016 recommended a change in the law “so that soliciting is no longer an offence and so that brothel-keeping provisions allow sex workers to share premises”. Recognising the impact of criminalisation on sex workers’ ability to leave prostitution, the committee called for a law to delete “previous convictions and cautions for prostitution” from sex workers’ records. Crucially, by stating that “trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is an important and separate issue from prostitution between consenting adults”, the committee brings clarity to an area fraught with misinformation. Credit for the committee’s judicious recommendations belongs, first of all, to the international movement for decriminalisation spearheaded by sex workers over many decades.
In December 2016, the government responded saying that there is a need for “a research study into prostitution to provide a clear view of the situation in England and Wales”. An interim report is due to be presented to Parliament by June 2017 making the publication of this symposium report right on time. By making available the views and experiences of sex workers, the conclusions reached by academic research and prominent organisations such as Amnesty International and various UN bodies, and the growing public support for decriminalisation, this report can inform and guide parliamentarians and anyone concerned with women’s rights and human rights generally, to ensure that urgent action is taken to address the obvious injustices that sex workers face and to decriminalise prostitution.