Plan 'would not help sex workers'
Criminalising the purchase of sex in Northern Ireland would not reduce trafficking, new research has claimed.
The controversial proposal, which is up for debate at Stormont next week, could also put sex workers in greater danger, is unlikely to deter customers and would be almost impossible to police, according to the study.
The survey, the first of its kind by Queen's University, questioned 171 Northern Ireland-based sex workers and 446 of their clients.
:: 85% of sex workers believed outlawing the purchase of sex would not reduce sex trafficking;
:: Only 2% of prostitutes supported criminalising the purchase of sex;
:: 61% of sex workers thought changing the law would make them less safe;
:: Only 16% of clients said a change to the law would make them stop paying for sex.
The report estimates that between 300 and 500 prostitutes work in Northern Ireland on a daily basis - 2% of whom were coerced into the sex trade.
Most are women from Eastern Europe but there are also prostitutes from France, Spain, Italy and Brazil as well as some African nations and Latin America.
The majority of prostitutes operate out of rented apartments or hotel rooms advertising their services through the internet and about 15% said they worked with or had previously worked for a third party, such as an agency or brothel owner.
There are only 20 women who work the streets and all are based in Belfast or Londonderry.
The average age of a sex worker in Northern Ireland is 30 but 1.5% are under 16 and a further 2.3% are aged between 17 and 18.
There are also a small number of women prostitutes (0.6%) over 60 and researchers said there was anecdotal evidence of at least one street-based sex worker aged 70.
Under current legislation it is not a criminal offence to buy sex if the person has not been forced into the sex industry. It is up the purchaser to know whether or not the prostitute has been coerced.
Offences such as kerb-crawling, brothel-keeping and human trafficking are covered under the criminal law.
The report estimates that 17,000 men in Northern Ireland pay for sex each year - 3% of the adult male population - with most (85%) using the internet to avail of the services.
Of those questioned, only 6% said they had bought sex in a brothel.
Academic Susann Huschke, who was part of the QUB research team, said: "A very small minority (of sex workers) thought that criminalising clients was a good idea.
"They feel it is going to make their life less safe, it is going to affect them negatively in the way they live and work; it's not going to achieve what it is meant to achieve which is to reduce demand and reduce prostitution and reduce trafficking.
"Some actually said it might increase the involvement of organised crime gangs and anybody trying to make money out of sex workers because it is going to drive it more underground which then makes them more vulnerable to being exploited by third parties."
The proposal to outlaw paying for sex is among 19 clauses in the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill being brought before the Assembly by the DUP's Lord Morrow.
It is aimed at updating Northern Ireland's laws on trafficking and prostitution.
Justice Minister David Ford, whose department commissioned the research, said: " The research has established that the framework of prostitution in Northern Ireland is more complex and diverse than the picture generally painted.
"I have however, seen no evidence to suggest that the change proposed by Lord Morrow would reduce the incidence of trafficking. Indeed the report contains evidence to suggest that criminalising the purchase of sex, as a single clause in this Bill, may create further risk and hardship for those individuals, particularly women, involved in prostitution."
In a statement the DUP described the research as "deeply flawed".
"It is not clear why, the department should have spent public money on such a flawed research project when it is so clear that academic opinion is deeply divided on criminalising paying for sex, as much on ideological grounds as any empirical analysis," the party said.