Paying for sex could become illegal in Northern Ireland as part of draft legislation which proposes a “zero tolerance” approach to prostitution.
The controversial new bill to go before Stormont would create new offences of paying for sex and forcing people to beg.
Similar prohibitions on payment for sex have been opposed by police in Scotland where it is also being considered. Concerns have been raised in Scotland that such prohibitions are seen as almost impossible to enforce and make it harder to identify vulnerable women.
The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill has been put out to public consultation until October 18, Anti Slavery Day.
Lord Maurice Morrow, the DUP MLA who is sponsoring it, said he hopes the bill will have been passed into law by Christmas.
“The thrust of the bill is to deal with human trafficking, it is not to deal with prostitution,” he said.
“But we do know that the vast majority of people who are trafficked are trafficked into the sex trade.
“Give victims of human trafficking new rights if they give evidence against those who exploit them.”
Provisions contained in the draft legislation include:
- Allowing judges to take aggravating factors into consideration when passing sentence on pimps or traffickers. These would include withholding passports or supplying victims with drugs;
- Outlaw forced begging — Lord Morrow believes that many eastern European beggars are organised by gang masters;
- Introduction of a new offence of paying for the sexual services of a prostitute;
- Provide compensation for victims of trafficking;
- Provide child victims with a legal advocate;
- Provide support programmes for victims if they act as witnesses;
- Ensure no prosecution is brought for a criminal offence committed by a trafficking victim as a direct consequence of being trafficked.
Lord Morrow would also require the Department of Justice to produce an annual strategy on raising awareness and reducing trafficking in human beings.
The new provisions to help trafficking victims are unlikely to prove controversial, some are already in force, but the changes in law on prostitution may excite more debate.
Under current law, prostitution is not illegal in Northern Ireland but it is illegal to solicit, to act as a pimp controlling prostitutes, to find clients for a person who has been forced into prostitution. Kerb crawling and loitering, often associated with prostitution, are also illegal.
Lord Morrow would like to extend these laws to include the two new offences.
Under his legislation, clients could be prosecuted for buying sex and prostitutes for soliciting though they would have a defence if they were coerced into the sex trade.
Police often allow prostitutes to operate in designated areas provided they do not cause a public nuisance.
Lord Morrow, however, proposes “zero tolerance”.
He said he was motivated both by a desire to reduce the harm done by the sex trade and by his own moral views.
The bill follows prolonged lobbying by the Evangelical Alliance, which offers practical help to women caught up in Belfast’s sex trade. David Smyth, a spokesman, said: “We live in a culture that has detached sex from marriage and relationships and turned it into a commodity to be consumed through pornography, casual encounters or prostitution and sex trafficking.
“We need to start thinking in a new way about how to deal with these broader issues.”
He commended Lord Morrow for adopting the ‘Swedish Model’ by making it illegal to buy sex. However, in Sweden soliciting is not prohibited, although Lord Morrow would continue to ban it.
There is a strong lobby — ‘Turn off the Red Light’ — to adopt Swedish legislation in the Irish Republic. Similar measures are out for consultation in Scotland.
The Scottish Association of Chief Police Officers opposed the change.
Assistant Chief Constable Iain Livingstone warned Holyrood’s Justice Committee that the measure would make it harder to identify vulnerable women and enforce the law.
Factfile: the law as it stands
The crackdown on prostitution is part of a range of measures contained in draft legislation aimed at tackling human trafficking and exploitation in the region. While activities such as kerb-crawling, pimping and brothel-keeping are illegal in Northern Ireland, selling or paying for sex is permitted. It is illegal to solicit, to act as a pimp controlling prostitutes, to find clients for a person who has been forced into prostitution. Lord Morrow favours keeping all the existing restrictions as well as creating the two new offences.
How other countries deal with prostitution
By Liam Clarke
Lord Morrow’s solution of making payment for sex illegal is in force in Sweden and Norway but both countries have no offence of prostitution.
In other words, they prosecute the client but not the seller.
Swedish police officers claimed, at a meeting in Dublin, that the number of prostitutes working in Stockholm had fallen from 3,000 in the 1970s to 200 people today.
However, in 2010 Kajsa Wahlberg, of Sweden’s human trafficking unit, said the policy had failed and prostitution was increasing.
In recent years, ministers and senior police officials have been caught purchasing sex.
In several other European countries prostitution is legal and regulated.
These include Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Greece, Latvia, Switzerland and Turkey. The same is true of the most populous regions of Austria.
This policy is favoured by some senior police officers. For instance, Simon Byrne, an Assistant Commissioner at the Met, said earlier this year that where prostitution goes on behind closed doors workers are at more risk of “exploitation by criminals and gangs”.
He argued that trafficking victims could be better helped if the sex trade was legal, open to inspection and regulated.
Laws which make prostitution completely illegal, as Lord Morrow advocates, exist in the US where people trafficking is rife for prostitution, domestic servitude and other forms of forced labour.
It is also illegal in China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and much of eastern Europe.
Attempts to introduce legislation against payment of sex in Scotland have been twice rejected by Holyrood, most recently this year following police objections. The proposals are now out to consultation.
In Northern Ireland and Britain it is already illegal for a man to have a sex with a woman who had been forced into prostitution even if he does not realise she was compelled.
Figures released to the BBC last month show that the legislation has resulted in just 43 convictions in its first year of operation in England and Wales.
Last night the PSNI said it did not wish to comment on the proposed legislation.
Prohibition won’t stop the trade. There are no easy answers
By Liam Clarke
There is no doubting that Lord Morrow sincerely wants to help the victims of human trafficking, and he has opened up a valuable debate on the sex trade and its casualties.
However, even he admits that no legislation will provide “a golden bullet” to end the trade in people, any more than making murder illegal ended homicide.
The facts are pretty plain.
Human trafficking is largely a product of inequalities of wealth; that is why it is so prevalent in the US where the laws on prostitution are strict except in parts of Nevada.
Yet people are trafficked from all over the Third World to the US.
Its own citizens are also trafficked internally, particularly children.
This is an area where there are no easy answers.
To our south, the Republic also has a paper out to consultation.
It offers a range of alternatives including legalising and regulating the sex trade as well as criminalising the purchase of sex.
Lord Morrow might have done better to have included other options and to have consulted the police before he made his pitch.
Regulation has a lot to be said for it.
Innocent victims of the sex trade include the wives and partners of men who secretly use prostitutes and who, in the current situation, are at risk of contracting STDs.
Prohibition won’t stop that any more than it will stop people trafficking. Lord Morrow’s measures to help victims of trafficking can be supported, but his plan to outlaw prostitution needs another look.