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Sex Industry (Drugs)

Volume 455: debated on Thursday 18 January 2007

21. What estimate the Government have made of the percentage of women involved in the sex industry who are addicted to class A drugs. (116355)

A 2004 Home Office study profiled 228 women involved in street-based prostitution and found that 87 per cent. used heroin and 64 per cent. used crack cocaine. Anecdotal evidence from a subsequent Government consultation paper suggested that a high proportion—in many areas, practically all—of those involved in street prostitution used class A drugs.

Does not that suggest that the key intervention in relation to prostitution, especially street prostitution, is the provision by the NHS of effective drug treatment across the country?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The prostitution strategy that was produced by the Government recognises the enormous importance of providing appropriate drug treatment and he will be aware that we have invested £600 million in drug treatment provision in the recent past.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) a speedy recovery to full mobility.

The Minister will know that many of those involved in prostitution are the victims of trafficking. Can she enlighten us as to when the Government will come to the end of their period of reflection on the UN convention on trafficking and sign up to it?

I welcome the hon. Lady to women’s questions, although I hope that her participation will be temporary because we would like to see the hon. Member for Epping Forest back in her place as soon as possible. She raises an enormously important issue. Significant numbers of women are trafficked into prostitution in this country. The Government are committed to all the aims of the European Union convention and we are looking carefully at when we will be able to sign up to it.

A few years ago, Wigan and Bolton health authority carried out a survey of the sex industry, which showed that 98 per cent. of the women on-street were addicted to heroin, whereas very few of the women off-street were addicted to any drug at all. Therefore, would it not make sense to protect the safety of those on-street prostitutes by prescribing heroin in clinics, at least for a limited period while they are weaned off the drug?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. On-street prostitution is the main focus of the prostitution strategy, because of the many different concerns that it provokes. However, decisions about the treatment of the women need to be taken on the basis of careful consideration of their individual circumstances. We have also stressed the importance of considering not only drug treatment, but every other circumstance that affects them, so that we can deal with the issues that have driven them into prostitution and not just one aspect of their situation.

The Minister referred to the co-ordinated prostitution strategy, which was a watered-down response to a consultation document called “Paying the Price”. That involved a change of rules to allow prostitutes to work together, a crackdown on kerb crawlers and, vitally, new ways of helping women addicted to class A drugs. Why have even those mild measures not been enacted nearly a year later? When will the Government bite the bullet, risk unpopularity and some tabloid press, and do the right thing by those women?

I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation of what the Government are doing. Significant amounts of money are being invested in drug treatment and the issue of street prostitution is being given priority in many areas. We are taking forward co-ordinated activity on prevention and developing routes out of prostitution. Importantly, we are also tackling demand.

Both Front Benchers might like to know that the treaty is neither a UN nor an EU convention, but a Council of Europe treaty. If nine out of 10 prostitutes are slaves to drug dealers as well as their pimps, are we not talking about victims, not sex workers or the sex industry, let alone the ludicrous idea from the Liberal Democrats of increasing such activity by legalising it? Is it not men who have to be put in the spotlight? They create the demand and until we cut off the demand, the supply will unfortunately continue.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. The women are victims and we need to take that seriously. I am pleased that he raises the issue of demand and I would like to see more hon. Members taking on that issue and raising that important matter.