Safety First…John McDonnell MP makes a robust and constructive House of Commons speech against the criminalisation of people buying sex

Posted: 10 November, 2014 in Sex Work
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Read more UK Parliament Watch at MelonFarmers.co.uk

john mcdonnell Last week there was a parliamentary debate where Labour amendments tocriminalise people who buy sexwere dropped. A Labour MP, John McDonnell made a fine contribution that is well worth recording for posterity on Melon Farmers.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): To turn briefly to the new clauses and the amendment tabled in relation to prostitution, I apologise to all Members of the House for inundating them with briefings over the past 48 hours. I am very sorry, but this debate came up in a hurry, and it was important to give people the chance to express their views. I have always respected my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who is very well intentioned. I support new clause 7 because developing a strategy is critical, and amendment 1, which is the decriminalisation amendment, but I am fundamentally opposed to new clause 6, because it is worrying, counter-productive and dangerous. New clause 22 would give us the opportunity and enough time to undertake a proper review.

I know that sex work is abhorrent for some Members. I must say that in the years since I convened some of the first meetings of the Ipswich Safety First campaign in this House, after five women were killed there, I have met a number of men and women who were not coerced into sex work and do not want their livelihoods to be curtailed by the proposed criminalisation of their clients. It is true that I have met many others who entered prostitution to overcome economic disadvantage—they suffered in poverty to enable them to pay the rent and put food on the table for their children—but that has been made worse by welfare benefit cuts, escalating housing costs and energy bills. The answer is not to criminalise any of their activities, but to tackle the underlying cause by not cutting welfare benefits and ensuring people have an affordable roof over their heads and giving them access to decent, paid employment.

The whole issue has focused on the idea that by stopping the supply of clients, prostitution will somehow disappear, as will all the exploitation, trafficking and violent abuse. The Swedish model has been suggested as an example, but there was absolutely overwhelming opposition to it in the briefings that I have circulated. Those briefings have come from charities such as Scot-Pep—the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project—which is funded by the state; the Royal College of Nursing, the nurses themselves; and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, which is another Government-funded organisation to get women and others off the game, that nevertheless says that the Swedish model would be counter-productive.

The Home Office has commissioned academic research, and I have circulated a letter from 30 academics from universities around the country that basically says that the proposed legislation is dangerous. We must listen to sex workers: the English Collective of Prostitutes, the Sex Worker Open University, the Harlots collective, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe—flamboyant names, but they represent sex workers, and all are opposed to the criminalisation of clients.

Michael Connarty: Could my hon. Friend quote some sources from Sweden? I understand that in Sweden they do not take that view.

John McDonnell: I will come straight to that point, but let me go through the other organisations we have listened to: lawyers, human rights bodies such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and UN Aid, and even the women’s institute down in Hampshire—I warn hon. Members never to cross the women’s institute anywhere—as well as members of the Ipswich Safety First coalition who dealt with the deaths those years ago.

What is the consensus? It is that there is no evidence that criminalising clients as in the Swedish legislation reduces the number of either clients or sex workers. I could quote at length—time we have not got—from the Swedish Government’s report that demonstrates that there is no correlation between the legislation they introduced and a reduction in numbers of clients or sex workers.

Fiona Mactaggart: My hon. Friend said that the Swedish Government have no evidence for that, which is true, but they did have evidence that the number of men who pay for sex in Sweden has gone down significantly.

John McDonnell: That was one survey where men who were asked, Do you pay for sex, because you could be prosecuted for it? naturally said no. The evidence has been challenged. The other part of the consensus concerns the argument that other Governments are now acting and following the Swedish model, but South Africa has rejected it, and Scotland rejected it because measures on kerb crawling were introduced. In France, the Senate has rejected that model on the basis that sex workers will be put at risk. There are even threats of legal action in Canada on the issue of the safety and security of sex workers.

The other consensus that has come from these organisations is that not only do such measures not work, they actually cause harm. We know that because we undertook research through the Home Office in 2005-06. What did it say? Sex workers themselves were saying, It means that we never have time to check out the clients in advance. We are rushed and pushed to the margins of society as a result, which does us harm.

There are alternatives. I do not recognise the view on the implementation of decriminalisation in New Zealand mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough, because all the research says that it is working. Who says that we should look at decriminalisation? The World Health Organisation, UN Women and UNAIDS. I circulated a letter from Nigel Richardson, who is not just a lawyer who represents sex workers but also acts as a judge. He says that we can tackle abuse and sexual exploitation with existing laws.

I appeal to the House not to rush to legislate on such a contested issue where there is such conflicting research, evidence and views. New clause 22 would provide a way through as it would enable us to undertake the necessary research, consult, bring forward proposals, and legislate if necessary. I want to include in that consultation the New Zealand model and full decriminalisation. I am not in favour of legalisation; I am in favour of full decriminalisation. On that basis we should listen to those with experience. I convened some meetings with the Safety First coalition to brief Members on what it had done. It invested money in the individuals—£7,000 a prostitute—and it got people out of prostitution by investing money, not by decriminalising them.

Reverend Andrew Dotchin was a founder member of the Safety First coalition. He states:

I strongly oppose clauses on prostitution in the Modern Slavery Bill, which would make the purchase of sex illegal. Criminalising clients does not stop prostitution, nor does it stop the criminalisation of women. It drives prostitution further underground, making it more dangerous and stigmatising for women.

I fully support the Reverend Andrew Dotchin in his views.

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