The PSNI has withdrawn its opposition to proposals to criminalise men who pay for sex – but stopped short of backing the plans, as they could deter people in the sex industry from giving information to the police.
The new law being proposed for Northern Ireland is based on existing Swedish legislation.
But senior officers have also pointed out that most convictions in Sweden are achieved through phone tapping and surveillance of suspects – which would not be allowed here. Giving evidence at a justice committee meeting yesterday, the senior officers pointed to pluses and minuses in Lord Morrow's proposal, which is included in the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill. "We don't oppose it... if the Assembly passes this legislation, we will use it to the best effect we can," Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris (right) said.
However, he pointed out that men who paid for sex were already risking ridicule and knew they were taking a risk so "it is difficult to assess how much effect the threat of prosecution would have".
Lord Morrow's Bill is aimed at trying to reduce people being illegally forced into the sex industry.
He wants to reduce demand for prostitutes and thus make it less profitable to traffic women into the sex industry here.
ACC Harris and Chief Superintendent Roy McComb, who also gave evidence, pointed out that it was already an offence to have sex with a person who had been trafficked and that ignorance was no defence.
Six men have so far been arrested for this offence, but none of them have been convicted because of a legal time limit on how long police have to bring charges.
That limitation is now being removed and police are hopeful it will help secure future convictions.
Mr McComb said that about 1,000 people now work in organised crime here "as their day job" and it is estimated that there are 145 criminal gangs here.
Yesterday, Lord Morrow was delighted.
"One of the central arguments put by those who are opposed to the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill has been that the police are opposed to the sixth clause of the legislation, which would make it a criminal offence to pay for sex," he said.
Currently, consenting adults are allowed to buy or sell sexual services here, but many associated activities – such as organising prostitution, kerb crawling or soliciting in a public place – are illegal. Some people here, particularly immigrants from poorer countries, have been trafficked into prostitution. It's estimated that around 60 trafficked victims are amongst the 175 people advertised on escort websites here.