Decriminalise sex workers immediately, says Home Affairs Committee

The Home Office should immediately amend the law so that soliciting by sex workers is no longer an offence


In a report published today, the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee has called for an immediately change existing prostitution legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and sex workers can legally share premises.

However, it has deferred recommending an entirely new legislative framework, on the grounds that further investigation is required.

Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Committee, commented:

“This is the first time that Parliament has considered the issue of prostitution in the round for decades. It is a polarising subject with strong views on all sides. This interim report will be followed by final recommendations, when we consider other options, including the different approaches adopted by other countries.

As a first step, there has been universal agreement that elements of the present law are unsatisfactory. Treating soliciting as a criminal offence is having an adverse effect, and it is wrong that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be penalised and stigmatised in this way. The criminalisation of sex workers should therefore end.

Legislating for sex work is one of the most divisive and acrimonious issues in British feminist discourse, with different groups supporting dramatically different policy approaches.

Some support complete decriminalisation and regulation of sex work, the model New Zealand adopted in 2003.

This decriminalises both the sale and purchase of sex and, its advocates argue, guarantees sex workers’ working rights and protections, as well as ensuring their access to necessary healthcare, and recourse to justice if they are subjected to violence or abuse in the course of their work.

Amnesty International endorsed this approach last year, in what many consider a turning point in the debate.

The alternative approach is the so-called ‘Nordic Model’, which decriminalises the sellers of sex, but criminalises pimping, procuring or operating a brothel.

Supporters of this approach argue that sex industry is inherently exploitative and dependent on structural inequalities between men and women, and that the only way to protect women and girls is to shut down the industry by stopping demand.

This is the view taken by the Women’s Equality Party.

In a statement issued this morning, party leader Sophie Walker welcomed the decriminalisation of sex workers, but warned that:

“To end sex trafficking and sexual exploitation in the sex trade, demand needs to be reduced. The protection of people who sell sex should not be extended to pimps and sex buyers.”

The International Union of Sex Workers also welcomed the decriminalisation of soliciting and co-working, but called for the implementation of the New Zealand model:

“The IUSW seeks a legislative approach that tackles violence against sex workers and also enables effective public health policy and efficient use of resources. Evidence shows that full decriminalisation, the New Zealand model, is the best way to achieve this.”

In its report, the Home Affairs Committee acknowledges the complexity of balancing these different viewpoints which ‘often arise from moral values’, particularly in the absence of robust evidence on sex work and the experience of sex workers in England and Wales.

The interim report will be followed by a final report in the coming years.

In the meantime, the committee hopes that its work will stimulate public debate on this often-neglected issue, and recommends that the Home Office commission an in-depth study of sex work in England and Wales.

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