David Ford in bid to scupper Bill making it illegal to pay for sex
The Justice Minister has launched a last-ditch attempt to head off legislation aimed at criminalising prostitution in Northern Ireland.
David Ford said a controversial DUP Bill to change the law would drive the sex industry underground and put its workers at greater risk.
But the DUP hit back at the "eleventh-hour intervention" by the Justice Minister.
A Stormont debate is due to take place on Monday regarding the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill put forward by DUP peer Lord Morrow, which includes proposals to criminalise paying for sex.
Mr Ford said that he opposed a key clause within the Bill that makes the buying of sex illegal.
It came after a report commissioned by his department said the introduction of such a law, outlined in Clause Six of the Bill, would be hard to police and would be unlikely to act as a deterrent.
The research also suggested 1% of those involved in the sex trade had been forced to join it.
But the DUP last night dismissed the findings of the report and said academic opinion on the subject was "deeply divided".
Lord Morrow has insisted the new law is vital in tackling trafficking, arguing that outlawing payment would simplify legislation and send a message to offenders. He previously said anybody who opposes his Bill – backed by former US president Jimmy Carter – is on the wrong side of history.
Mr Ford's comments came after the publication of findings from a report on the sex trade in Northern Ireland, commissioned by his department and carried out by Queen's University. While he can oppose the Bill, the Justice Minister does not have the power to block it.
"Lord Morrow and I share a determination to do all we can to address the misery of human trafficking and modern day slavery, and we have worked closely to agree on almost all of the Bill's provisions," Mr Ford said. "However, we differ over clause six of the Bill, which, if adopted, will change the law on criminalising the purchase of sex from a prostitute subjected to force, to criminalising the purchase of sexual services in any circumstances.
"My position is that I don't believe that the complexities of prostitution can be adequately addressed in a single clause in a Bill. Instead, the law and policy surrounding the issue of selling or purchasing sexual services should be considered separately, in detail and with the benefit of properly informed research."
The Queen's University report is the first time people involved in selling and buying sexual services have been directly approached in relation to prostitution policy in Northern Ireland.
Mr Ford added: "The research has established that the framework of prostitution in Northern Ireland is more complex and more diverse than the picture generally painted.
"I have seen no evidence to suggest that the change proposed by Lord Morrow would reduce the incidence of trafficking. The report contains evidence to suggest that criminalising the purchase of sex may create further risk and hardship for those individuals, particularly women, involved in prostitution."
- 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 on Monday.
- The peer wants to reduce demand for prostitutes and make it less profitable to traffic women into the sex industry here.
- The law could set a minimum two-year prison sentence for trafficking or slavery offences.
- Clause six of the Bill seeks to emulate the 1999 Swedish Procurement of Sexual Service law, which criminalises the purchase of sex but not those selling it.
This will just make life more difficult for people like me... a sex worker's view
A prostitute who works in Northern Ireland has said changing the law on paying for sex would drive an already clandestine industry even further underground.
The 27-year-old of Romanian origin, who has worked in the sex trade for more than 10 years, also said criminalising clients would not help trafficked victims.
The woman, who declined to be named, lives in Dublin but travels north every few months for three weeks at a time.
She said: "It will be more difficult for independent sex workers like me. I believe that if they really want to find trafficked girls, then they should spend money on finding ways to help them and not introduce a new law which targets all escorts in general."
She added: "Prosecuting clients is going to make it more difficult. It will take away all the good clients and we'll be stuck with only the bad clients."
The woman, who now works independently, usually rents an apartment during her time in Belfast. She can make from €700 to €3,000 a week seeing three or four clients a day.
She has never had to work the streets and instead advertises her services online.
"Everything is about the internet these days," she added: "I don't like hotels, they are too public for me.
"I prefer to use an apartment but that can be quite difficult."