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The prostitution proposal needs kicked to the kerb

In an article in the Belfast Telegraph earlier this month, Lord Morrow once again sought public support for his Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, currently under consultation in the Assembly.

Lord Morrow's Bill seeks to extend aspects of the Criminal Justice Bill to introduce better support and aftercare for victims of sex trafficking, but also - and somewhat controversially - to introduce a new offence of 'paying for sex'.

Lord Morrow states that we should see his Bill as an "historic opportunity to build on our abolitionist legacy". I have no idea what this means.

What I do know is that the Bill is ill-thought through, confusing and based on rather dubious evidence.

Sex trafficking is conflated solely with prostitution - the two are distinct - and many of the proposals are simply unworkable in practice.

There are four major problems with Lord Morrow's Bill. I shall outline each in turn.

First is the issue of 'trafficking' itself. In the last 10 years, 'trafficking' has emerged to become a dominant feature of public discourse. This has been accompanied by increasingly fantastical (and unsubstantiated) media claims about the number of 'victims'.

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Let us be clear: trafficking and coercing people into sex, or forced labour, are heinous crimes and should be dealt with using the fullest application of the law.

However, evidence has been replaced by scaremongering that does little to address the seriousness of the issue and, in many cases, can make attempts to deal with actual cases of trafficking more difficult.

Even in Northern Ireland it is impossible to get any kind of accurate data on the scale of the problem. Quite simply, we do not know what the scale of the problem is.

The DUP's David McIlveen - using figures supplied by the PSNI - has claimed that prostitution is Northern Ireland's "most successful enterprise", with an annual turnover of £35m (minus £5m for 'overheads'). However, such figures are impossible to substantiate.

Similarly, Roy McComb, of the PSNI's organised crime unit, stated in 2011, that sex trafficking was a major problem "in all six counties".

However, a Freedom of Information request made to the PSNI drew the response that "no information is available within the PSNI as to [the] scope or level of human trafficking in Northern Ireland". Nevertheless, there are frequently cited claims (based on the flimsiest of evidence) that Russian, Albanian and Romanian mafia groups are operating across Northern Ireland and even, according to Anna Lo, that the Chinese Triads are setting up shop.

However, in spite of all this alleged activity there has, to date, been only one prosecution of a 'trafficker' - a Hungarian by the name of Matyas Pis in 2012.

Pis was not involved with any organised crime gang and the women he 'trafficked' were two Czech prostitutes that flew of their own volition to Belfast to operate out of a city centre apartment that they rented from Pis.

Second, Lord Morrow claims that critics of his Bill (myself included) have focused on Clause 4, that criminalises the payment for sex to the exclusion of other aspects of his proposals. However, if we have done so it is because it is this aspect that he has talked up himself.

Lord Morrow fundamentally misjudges the nature of sex work. Some women are forced into prostitution undoubtedly, some women do it through choice, but the overwhelming majority do it out of necessity.

Simply assuming that all female sex workers represent a homogenous group and that prostitution can simply be eliminated by a 'big stick' approach is fanciful at best. At worst, it runs the risk of further marginalising already-marginalised women.

Third, Lord Morrow cites the 'success' of the so-called Swedish model that introduced a law criminalising the payment for sex more than a decade ago.

This has been trumpeted by the Swedish government, some feminists and religious groups as having been "a remarkable success". A growing body of research evidence, however, suggests that it has been no such thing.

Early reports were based on a severely limited English language translation of the Swedish government's initial evaluation.

The actual Swedish language evaluation suggested the government did not know if the law had been successful or not.

However, Lord Morrow repeats the (false) mantra that the Swedish law "reduced" prostitution by 50%. As an academic criminologist, I am not aware of any legislative development in the social policy arena that would result in a 50% reduction in anything. It simply does not happen.

What he further neglects to mention is that the original report stated "may have reduced" and made explicit reference to "street" prostitution. All the Swedish law did was displace prostitution from the street into hotel rooms.

Finally, Lord Morrow's Bill is the place where radical feminism meets far-Right Christian fundamentalism. Lord Morrow does not mention it, but it seems that his Bill is sponsored (or at least actively promoted) by CARE - Christian Action Research and Education - that promotes the Bill on its website.

CARE has been described as a "far-Right Christian group" and has attracted considerable controversy for its stance on homosexuality, abortion, stem-cell research, faith schools and creationism.

I cannot help but feel that there is another, more insidious agenda to this Bill; one that is tied up with ideology, rather than the interests of actual victims.

The issue of trafficking is a potentially serious one. However, it is one that will not be solved by knee-jerk policy responses and ill thought through legislation.

The Department of Justice needs to commission research - rather than endlessly recycle dubious PSNI data - and, more fundamentally, it would actually benefit from speaking to some of the women involved in sex work.

For all the talk about women involved in the sex industry as "victims", there is no apparent appetite for actually speaking with them in order to assess what the real issues are.

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