On the day before the election sex workers are announcing the results of their e-campaign to find out where electoral candidates stand on prioritising the safety of sex workers by decriminalising prostitution.
Laura Watson from the English Collective of Prostitutes said:
“Our results are in! We got responses from many parts of the UK including Scotland and Wales. Respondents ranged from former ministers to candidates standing for the first time. All candidates expressed concern for sex workers’ safety, some acknowledged the increase in prostitution as a result of austerity and at least half of those polled supported full decriminalisation of sex work.”
The Green Party is the only party to have decriminalisation of prostitution in their manifesto with candidates confirming party policy that “all aspects of sex work involving consenting adults should be decriminalised”. Leader Natalie Bennett made her views known in her blog supporting the “New Zealand model” of decriminalisation: “I’ve always been pleased to offer support to the voices of sex workers, who want to stay safe and reduce stigma.”
The Liberal Democrats policy supports decriminalisation and many candidates demonstrated a good understanding of the issues. One stated: “evidence from New Zealand suggests that decriminalisation can help to make sex work safer and reduce the risk of violence”, adding that one of the benefits “is that sex workers are able to organise themselves together as they see fit. This can help to foster trust and better relations with the police, which in turn can lead to improved reporting, detection and punishment of abuses.” Their objections to a “sex-purchase law” was similarly well-informed, with candidates saying it “would fail to deter violence against workers in the sex industry and would divert important resources away from tackling more serious offences.”
The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition was unequivocal in its support for decriminalisation: “sex workers should be afforded exactly the same rights and respect at work as any other worker, including the right to belong to a union and decent pay, conditions and safety. Obviously the latter is NOT compatible with being criminalised for doing your job.” Candidates expressed concern that “the industry is growing because of the acute economic pressure caused by ‘austerity.’”
The Labour Party has shifted. John McDonnell, parliamentary candidate in Hayes and Harlington, has worked with us for many years spearheading parliamentary opposition to any attempts to increase the criminalisation of prostitution and he continues to offer his vocal and principled support. Labour, however, when in government, increased the criminalisation of both sex workers and clients, and as recently as last year some Labour MPs tried to introduce legislation to criminalise clients. But now their candidates are overwhelmingly saying that they want to look at the evidence again. One representative view was: “though I cannot yet commit to a wholesale decriminalisation, I welcome the strong evidence this campaign has provided of the potential benefits of decriminalisation.” Deputy Leader Harriet Harman “recognised that the current epidemic of economic insecurity, particularly for women, may increase the numbers who rely on sex work to survive. Cuts to services and low wages may increase the likelihood of people turning to sex work — cuts to homeless services and social housing may push more people into this work for survival.” One of their Scottish candidates pointed to the “1.1 million people [who] turned to food banks across the UK over the past year”.
The Conservative Party made clear they do not support changing the law to criminalise sex workers’ clients and quoted evidence from “Women Against Rape and the English Collective of Prostitutes which shows that the ‘Nordic model’ can encourage the sellers and buyers of sex to operate further out of sight, exposing them to a greater risk of violence.” Informal conversations with candidates seeking re-election indicated support for decriminalisation among a number of former ministers. Unfortunately, no candidate commented on the evidence of rising poverty which has propelled more people, particularly mothers and other women, into prostitution.
The Scottish National Party has no policy on prostitution but their opposition to austerity was lauded by constituents when they wrote to candidates. Candidates indicated that their priority was “ensuring the safety of women who work as sex workers”. Justice Secretary, Michael Matheson, also agreed to meet with campaigners to “inform the party position on the decriminalisation of sex work”.
UKIP said they do not have a party policy on sex work but believe that the law should only punish acts that clearly harm others. UKIP policy on immigration came in for criticism by voters concerned that the witch-hunting of immigrant people was putting women’s lives and livelihoods at risk, and was likely to be used to justify attacks on immigrant sex workers and increased police raids and arrests.