Campaigners have celebrated a report by a cross-party group of MPs that says sex workers should no longer be criminalised, but warned the “positive” findings may be at risk if they’re lost in the Tory leadership contest.
The inquiry into prostitution by the home affairs select committee, released on Friday, said soliciting by sex workers should no longer be a criminal offence, including working on the street or working together in indoor premises.
The committee also said sex workers should be allowed to share premises, but stressed the law to prosecute those who use brothels to control or exploit sex workers should not change, and that there should be “zero tolerance” for criminal exploitation of sex workers.
Sex workers should have previous convictions and cautions for sex work cleared, the report also found, as criminal records “make it much more difficult” for those who wish to move into other work to do so. The study said that between 2014 and 2015, there were 456 prosecutions of sex workers for loitering and soliciting, and noted some migrant women are “particularly vulnerable” to violence and exploitation.
The committee said the legislation in these areas should change immediately, and it was “dismayed” by the lack of quality information on prostitution in England and Wales, calling for a further in-depth study. Labour’s Keith Vaz, one of the MPs involved in the inquiry, said there was “universal agreement” among the committee that the current laws in place had an “adverse effect” on the safety of sex workers.
Campaigners praised the report’s findings, describing its recommendations as “positive” and “well evidenced” – highlighting how the committee “listened to the voices” of sex workers.
Alex Feis-Bryce, chief executive of National Ugly Mugs, a charity that supports sex workers and worked closely with the select committee, told BuzzFeed News he was “delighted” with the outcome, noting that the proposed changes in legislation may help prevent the marginalisation and stigma many sex workers face daily.
“Some people have reservations about the committee, but the outcome is clear: They’ve listened to sex workers, they haven’t fallen into the traps some policymakers do in this area, such as being led by myths and stereotypes, and they’ve recognised the diversity of the sex industry,” Feis-Bryce said.
He also said it was “reassuring” that the committee noted the criminalisation of paying for sex, as introduced in countries including New Zealand and Northern Ireland, does not reduce demand or improve the lives of sex workers. “The recognition of decriminalisation, as in New Zealand, as a model which has improved working conditions is a huge step forward in recognising the rights of sex workers to public protection,” he added.
However, some campaigners say that as the inquiry was conducted by a select committee and not the government, there’s no guarantee the changes recommended will be enacted. They fear Brexit and the current leadership battles in the government will mean the conversation will be lost.
Dr Kate Brown, a lecturer at the University of York and chair of Basis Yorkshire, a charity that worked alongside police on the “managed” sex work zone in Leeds, welcomed the inquiry results, but said the next steps are “crucial”.
“You can’t criminalise the customer of sex workers without creating risk for sex workers,” Brown said. “The report acknowledges that, and the report findings means a significant step forward if realised.
“But the national conversation being dominated by Brexit means there will be some major changes at national government level, and so we’ll face challenges in pushing forward. That puts some of the positive messages in this report at risk.”
Feis-Bryce also approached the report with caution, and voiced concern that its positive outcomes may get lost as the battle for Tory party leadership, triggered by David Cameron’s resignation, continues.
“We still need to be mindful,” he said. “The sex workers’ rights movement and sex workers shouldn’t take their foot off the pedal. This needs to be a constant campaign.”
The Home Office said it will carefully consider the recommendations from the inquiry.
Rossalyn Warren is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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