Belfast Telegraph

Morrow should be congratulated for ban on buying sex

By Liam Clarke

This may seem like a radical suggestion, but let's congratulate Lord Morrow on getting his Bill on human trafficking into law and, even if we disagreed, give it a year to see how it works out.

It is worth having formal monitoring and a review. This could be carried out by a retired police officer, like Jim Gamble, former head of CEOPS, or another experienced professional. When something new, like making it an offence to pay for sex, not to mention extra protection for victims, is introduced into law, we need to see how it will work out in practice. Then we can keep it, tweak it, or replace it as we see fit.

Many people probably don't realise that, until this week, it was legal for individuals to both buy and sell sexual services throughout Ireland and the UK. Now we are the only area where buying, but not selling, is illegal.

This model is copied from Sweden, but many in law enforcement believe that it can't work here. We need to find out.

In Sweden the law is based on extensive telephone tapping which would not normally be authorised here to detect prostitution, as opposed to human trafficking. The tapes would also be inadmissible in our courts.

Quite often the telephone lines of escort services or their customers are tapped until a liaison is arranged. If it is in a hotel, officers may hire an adjoining room from which to bug proceedings to establish that there has been sex and payment. Then they burst in.

That wouldn't sit well here; it would be appealed all the way to Europe. We need to see if the PSNI can find some fully legal way to exploit its new power to prosecute men paying for sex.

Building evidence to bring a case will be the problem and we need to see if our legal system can handle it.

It is also argued that men paying prostitutes will sometimes report human trafficking and could give evidence if they were not incriminating themselves.

We need to see whether this legislation does really shut off more information than it produces, or whether it is a net gain to the fight on people trafficking.

It is also a fact that human trafficking is on the increase; it is up 10% since 2013, though this may be due to more efficient reporting.

Victims say they are generally used for cheap labour in the food industry, the home or growing illegal drugs. We need to crack down on the agencies who supply some of them.

The National Crime Agency recently reported that 45 potential victims of human trafficking were rescued in Northern Ireland last year. Thirty had been used for domestic servitude, or cheap labour, and only four women complained of sexual exploitation.

A good deal of prostitution, perhaps most, is not carried out by trafficked people. We need to see what is the most effective way to clamp down on both forced labour and forced sex. Other areas of the UK, Ireland and Europe will look at our experience and can learn from them.

In the same way, those who oppose same-sex marriage should take time to see how it works out in the Republic and the rest of the UK, where it is being introduced.

Will it devalue heterosexual marriage, or simply extend its benefits to a hitherto excluded minority? Will Churches be under pressure to carry out ceremonies against their will? Will some of the Churches change their mind after a while of seeing how it worked out?

That is what some appear to have done over civil partnerships. The Churches generally opposed them, but as the Archbishop of Canterbury quipped: "To hear us talking about them now you would think we invented them."

It is worth giving things a chance rather than getting ourselves dug into fixed positions before the evidence arrives.

We may think we know what will happen, but waiting for the benefit of hindsight is surer.

Petitions are now weapons of vengeance

'When it is too late for rescue, there is still time for revenge." The quote, summing up the spirit of vendetta, is from Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel, The Buried Giant.

In it he deals imaginatively with the outcome of conflict and defeat. It is about people trying to recover their memories of an immediate past, but fearing what they will discover when they do. It is set in dark age Britain, but it is a lot like Belfast.

Stormont seems to be governed on that revenge principle just now. The last major project to have been pushed through was the devolution of policing and justice. That happened when there was co-operation between Sinn Fein and the DUP in the wake of the Irisgate affair.

Now there is no co-operation and the emphasis is on blocking each other to exact revenge. Petitions of concern are the way to do that, but now they are being invoked far too often.

The device allows 30 MLAs to trigger a cross-community vote, under which a measure can only pass with the support of a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists. It was meant to prevent sectarian legislation.

On Tuesday it was used to overturn a change in the abortion law that would have fallen anyway and was not remotely more important to one section of the community than the other.

The petition was backed on a cross-community basis by Sinn Fein, the Green Party, Alliance and NI21. The measure would have failed anyway - by 41 votes to 39.

With same-sex marriage - hardly an issue that divides the two communities - the DUP lodged a petition to prevent a change in the law that would anyway have been defeated by 49 votes to 47.

These were close votes and could go the other way if they came up again. That should be allowed to happen if the trend continues.

These are issues on which opinion appears to be developing and our legislature should reflect such changes, not suppress them.

The petition of concern puts a premium on blocking things; it is the easiest way to land a blow, or get revenge.

The use of this powerful mechanism should, as a first step, be limited to a last resort when clearly sectarian legislation is proposed.

Someone would need to judge whether a petition was justified or not - perhaps the Assembly's legal adviser. It might also be necessary to get the support of a larger number of MLAs.

That would address the fears of bigoted decisions being taken and it would also end all those meaningless debates in which everyone knows the outcome before they rise to speak.

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