Sir Nicholas Winterton, Chairman, Bills Committee on the Policing and Crime Bill
Dear Sir Nicholas
THE DECRIMINALISATION OF PROSTITUTION IN NEW ZEALAND
I am writing to you in regard to the current proposals in the Policing and Crime Bill to tighten the laws in relation to prostitution in England and Wales. I am doing so as the sponsor of the Prostitution Reform Bill in New Zealand, which led that country becoming, in 2003, the first to decriminalize prostitution. I have been motivated to write by the fallacious comments being made by some in and around the British Parliament about the content and effect of the New Zealand law reform, and by the ways forward which that reform process, and the content of the law itself, can offer to British MPs struggling with a very tough legislative issue.
My name is Tim Barnett. I was born and raised in the UK, I worked as a lobbyist in Westminster for the Stonewall Group (while its’ first Executive Director) and then emigrated in 1991 to New Zealand. I was elected to Parliament there in 1996, and was in the governing party between 1999 and 2008. For the first six years of that period of government I was Chair of Parliament’s Justice and Electoral Select Committee and for the last three I was Senior Government Whip. I voluntarily departed from the New Zealand Parliament at that election three months ago and am currently resident short-term in the UK, spending time with my elderly mother.
In the New Zealand Parliament I represented an inner city electorate (constituency) with a significant sex industry presence, including around 18 brothels, the country’s second largest presence of street workers and numerous home working/escorting operations. It also contained a large network of support agencies, and the largest presence of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective outside Auckland and its Wellington headquarters.
I was not the author of the reform legislation, but rather was recruited by its instigator (a National (conservative) MP) and worked closely with the major womens’, public health and human rights groups, including the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, to develop it and to forge a campaign. When its instigator left politics, I fronted the law reform in the media and through its lengthy Parliamentary passage. Through that experience I have been called in to advise politicians in Papua New Guinea, South Africa and the United States on the creation of fair and effective prostitution law.
I thought it might be easiest to present what I wanted to say in the remainder of two sides and as eight key points.
1. Prostitution is inevitable, and no country has succeeded in legislating or policing it out of existence. Some argue its removal was achieved in China under the Red Guard, and Afghanistan under the Taliban; neither are, I would suggest, very helpful precedents. Communicating moral disapproval of prostitution through law automatically damages sex workers and is essentially unenforceable. What is required is realistic law to deal with real people and situations.
2. The significant tangible harms associated with prostitution – such as damage to young people, unsafe sex, coercion of people into and to stay in prostitution, trafficking, violent behaviour by clients, drug use, offensive signage – are all crimes in any case, or should be.
3. The people most likely to be damaged by prostitution in a criminalized environment are sex workers themselves. Sex workers can be, and are, trapped in what is undoubtedly a tough industry by the damage created by criminalization. Such damage is hidden from public view because those who exploit sex workers are protected by criminalization. Sex workers are vulnerable to attack. They are frequently blamed for the existence of the sex industry. As the Ipswich murders showed only too vividly, people labeled by the law as operating in an illegal sector have fatally damaged relationships with the Police, since the Police have the job of enforcing their essential illegality. Yet nothing which sex workers do so damages society that it deserves the punishment which society metes out to them through unfair laws. Nothing short of a fundamental change in the legal status of sex workers will repair the damage caused by all this. What is needed is law focused on making prostitution as stigma-free as possible, and on minimizing the barriers which exist to people leaving sex work; only law which is based on such values is respectful of women and their right to make decisions about what they do with their bodies.
4. The criminalization of prostitution places responsibility on the Police to enforce the law, and takes responsibility away from other agencies which should have an interest. In New Zealand, prior to law reform, the Ministry of Health funded the provision of condoms to sex workers through the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, the Inland Revenue were prepared to take tax from sex workers although they had earned illegally, and the Police used the personal possession of (the government-funded) condoms as evidence of engagement in sex work. Decriminalization places responsibility on a whole range of agencies, including those promoting public health, those addressing Health and Safety in the workplace and those administering planning law, to play their part – as they do in relation to very many other employment sectors. Decriminalisation removes a single-dimensional view by the state of sex work.
5. The public view of prostitution is complex, but it is simplistic to suggest that there is universal condemnation of sex workers. The public response to the Ipswich murders was a vivid illustration of this. At no time did polled public opinion in New Zealand suggest a majority against decriminalization of prostitution.
6. Any attempt to criminalise responsible clients – i.e. those who do not use or threaten violence, or pressure for unsafe or under-age sex – will merely damage sex workers further, since it is the contact with sex workers which defines the clients. If clients are pushed underground, they will take the sex workers with them. It is on the margins that the worst harms will happen, and the sex workers will be the most damaged victims.
7. Prostitution law takes time to create, and the process needs to involve all the key players. Successful prostitution law, such as that in New South Wales and New Zealand, has flowed from either full Committees of Inquiry or exhaustive Parliamentary Select Committee processes focused entirely on the issue of prostitution. The voice of sex workers themselves, of business interests, of concerned communities, and of people who know how good law operates in other countries, needs to be heard. Otherwise the debate will never be resolved, and aspects of it will be raised within wider legislation, leading to sterile debate and repeated frustration.
8. The New Zealand prostitution law works well. New Zealand is a very urbanized, multi-racial country with a white majority population having strong British family and cultural roots; it is a comparable environment to the UK. In 2003 prostitution was decriminalized; that meant that engaging in consensual prostitution was no longer an offence; neither was running a brothel, nor managing a prostitute. The law was supported by MPs from across the political spectrum. Penalties increased for a range of genuine harms such as those listed in 2) above. Built into the law was a comprehensive review process, which reported in 2008, backed up by a very significant research project. It concluded that the law was working well, and needed much longer to reach its potential. 100 plus years of criminalization leaves its mark. Detaiils of the law and review can be found on http://www.justice.govt.nz/prostitution-law-review-committee.
While available in the UK I would be willing to appear formally before the Bills Committee to speak to this submission, or meet informally with the whole Committee or individual members of it. I apologise for the delay in getting this to you.