Dear Friends and supporters,
We are writing first of all to say how very much we appreciate all the work people did against the prostitution clauses in the Policing & Crime Bill (PCB), and to give you a brief update.
Unfortunately, the PCB went through Parliament on 12 November. There was one key victory: the government was forced to amend Clause 14 so that it only criminalises clients who “pay for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force”, rather than the much wider “controlled for gain” which could have applied to many consensual arrangements. The offence remains a strict liability offence, so that the client will have no legal defence if the sex worker is later shown to have been forced, even if he didn’t know this at the time and did his best to find out.
Vicious new measures will shortly become law. They are: a new definition of “persistence” for loitering and soliciting which makes street workers more vulnerable to arrest; removing “persistence” from the kerb-crawling law so that guilt can be proved on the first offence; compulsory ‘rehabilitation’ orders, though the government has had to limit to 72 hours the time street workers can be detained before they are brought to court for breaching the order; more powers to close premises where they suspect that certain prostitution offences are being committed, including someone being ‘controlled for gain’; more powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act to seize people’s assets and property and profit from them.
A number of us attended the two last debates in the Lords. Opposition to the Bill was led by Baroness Sue Miller, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson, with whom we have been working for some time. She was the only one to raise that criminalisation would increase violence against sex workers. Some independent, Labour and Tory peers supported her; but the Tory party as a whole did not oppose the new measures, not even the strict liability aspect of Clause 14.
Some peers continued to conflate prostitution with rape and trafficking, and to raise the fabricated figures on trafficking despite the fact that they had been thoroughly discredited. But the figures did not feature in anything like the way they had during previous debates. Nick Davies’ article in the Guardian “Inquiry fails to find single trafficker who forced anybody into prostitution”, Dr Nick Mai’s research and the work we all did to get the truth out, meant that only the most unprincipled could continue to use these lies to justify cracking down on sex workers.
Baroness Howarth who spoke vehemently in favour of criminalizing clients described sex workers in the most disparaging way as “damaged goods”! How dare she call women “goods”, and on top of that “damaged”!
Speaking for the government, Baroness Scotland dressed up the measure as protection for vulnerable women. But the hollowness of this claim was exposed by Baroness Miller who said, in referring to the other clauses:
“. . . the next clauses . . . do not look as though they try to develop routes out as much as criminalising the women, forcing them into rehabilitation, developing problems for them when they do not comply with the orders, closing down brothels and so on. That part of the Bill gives a very negative feeling to what the Minister gave a very positive view of this evening.”
The debate on the amendment decriminalising under 18s was in some ways the best. Baroness Howarth made a convincing case for decrimalisation generally – against her better judgement no doubt! She spoke about criminalisation being an obstacle to accessing services, protection and any other help. But what is true of children is also true of adults, and the amendment was defeated.
Predictably, no connection was made between prostitution and the abolition of Income Support and other benefit cuts in the Welfare Reform Bill which became law at the same time as the PCB. Those who find prostitution horrifying do not seem horrified by the poverty or even destitution which drives many women into it.
As the PCB finally went through the Commons, John McDonnell MP who chaired many Safety First meetings, paid tribute to our campaigning. He then had to defend us from another unhinged attack by Denis MacShane MP. We rely on your ongoing support to address his false accusations. You may have noticed that he is a regular commentator for the Guardian Comment if Free and that the coverage in the Guardian since Nick Davies’s article on trafficking (“Inquiry fails to find single trafficker who forced anybody into prostitution, 20 October 2009”) has focussed on the criminalisation of clients, hiding all the other measures which criminalise sex workers. We have complained about this and urge you to do so also. The more letters they get the better. (The titles of the various comments are below along with the Guardian contact details.)
Despite the Bill being passed, we are far from discouraged. Peers and MPs told us that the campaign against the Bill had been very effective. Many of those who did not have a vested interest in supporting the government were persuaded to our view. New Zealand’s decriminalisation is now on the map as an example to be followed. Leading Tory Lord Skelmesdale asked the government why they hadn’t considered other countries and indicated that New Zealand was his preferred option. The recent national opinion poll, which found that 2/3 of the UK population support decriminalisation on grounds of safety, is an expression of how much we have gained.
We are reconvening the Safety First Coalition with the awareness that an unprecedented number of people from all walks of life are now ready to campaign for decriminalisation.
And while we brace ourselves for an increase in raids and prosecutions, we know that we can count on our expanded network to speak out in defence of sex workers’ rights and safety.
We need to be vigilant and exchange information about the effects of the new law. We need to discuss together what actions to take to protect women and their families. We especially want to hear about what is happening where you are. If you live in or near a red-light area, are you seeing more women on the street, or more police and more arrests? What are you hearing from family, neighbours or friends, or from the local papers? Please report to us any evidence of violence and victimisation so we can respond. We are already hearing of incidents of assault and two tragic murders, one round the corner from our Women’s Centre.
Finally, the work against these new laws has consumed much time and money. If you would like to make a donation to help cover those costs, please send cheque made out to “English Collective of Prostitutes” to the address above or contact us to donate by money transfer.
With thanks and for safety first,
Address at the Guardian for complaints.
Kings Place, 90 York Way,
London N1 9GU
Recent Guardian comments:
“Sex trafficking is no illusion”, 20 October 2009, Rahila Gupta
“Sex trafficking: a futile war of statistics”, 21 October 2009. Denis MacShane MP
“Exit strategy”, 28 October 2009
“Prostitution a Crime of Purchasing”, 9 November 2009, Beatrix Campbell