[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered tackling demand for commercial sexual exploitation.
I move the motion on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion).
This cannot go on. Our laws against commercial sexual exploitation are failing. They are failing to deter traffickers, failing to prevent pimps—those who profit—and failing victims. Crucially, we have known that for a long time. I have been fortunate to chair the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade for six or seven years, and I have grown increasingly frustrated that many political parties fail to engage with the issue. It forces us to examine a fundamental question: what do we believe prostitution inherently to be? Personally, I have moved to a position where I feel that it is a form of violence against women and girls; it is institutionalised exploitation for profit. We are forced to examine that question, and that is what this debate is about.
In 2014 the APPG conducted an inquiry into prostitution laws in England and Wales. Our conclusion was stark: because the law sends no clear messages about the nature of prostitution and what the goal of legislation is, it is by default those who are most visible—women selling sex—who are targeted, while men who create the demand in the first place walk away without being held legally accountable for the immense damage they do to individuals and communities.
To underline my hon. Friend’s point, does not the fact that 50% of women in prostitution in the UK are estimated to have started being paid for sex acts before they were 18 years old expose more than anything the vulnerability of people in this trade and how the almost rosy image that is sometimes given to it is very far away from the reality of what faces them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This goes right to the heart of the question of consent. How is it possible, under our current law, for someone to fail to give consent the day before their 18th birthday, but then to be in a position in which consent is assumed the day after?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the debate. I have watched documentaries about the situation around Europe, and whether we are dealing with sex trafficking or the slave trade, for want of a better term, because women are forced into a form of slavery. Things break down at the point of prosecuting men, whether they are just an individual using a prostitute or somebody running a gang. That is where the weakness is, and the law has to be strengthened to start to tackle that. Does my hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I will go on to say, and as other hon. Members will set out, one of the biggest single drivers of trafficking into this country and of child sexual exploitation is commercial sexual exploitation, which is why we need to take all measures to tackle it. Central to my argument, however, is the idea that by failing to tackle demand we perpetuate the inequality of focusing on the most visible part of the transaction, rather than on those who create the demand in the first place.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate, and the hon. Gentleman on all the work he does with the all-party group. He mentioned consent. There is a parallel issue of choice. Sometimes it is said that there is a choice. Does he agree that there is more to the question of choice than initially meets the eye, and that “choice” is often driven by poverty, addiction or abuse?
I could not agree more. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. There are all sorts of vulnerabilities that would cause someone who would not normally choose to go into the very violent and difficult world of prostitution to do that, but we must take responsibility for all those issues. Equally, prostitution is not a phenomenon driven by an over-supply of women—I am going to talk in gender terms, because this is a highly gendered phenomenon, although obviously we accept that a wide variety of people are involved. It is fundamentally caused not by an over-supply of people growing up wishing to go into prostitution, but by an over-supply of men who think that it is acceptable to purchase sex and to drive the scale of this trade.
I congratulate my hon. Friend—a fellow Co-operative Member—on the excellent case he is making on this terrible problem of exploitation in our society. Does he agree with me—I am looking at this particularly in terms of a Co-operative analysis of the economy—that many of the issues are driven by the insecure environments in which women find themselves? What we are talking about is the result of, in particular, poverty, addiction and coercion, but also of insecure work, zero-hours contracts and poor wages. All those things contribute to in-work poverty and are the reasons why women find themselves in those situations.
Again, I completely agree. As I will go on to say, a comprehensive model of legal reform would be one in which women who sold sex were decriminalised and those who bought it were subject to criminal sanction, but programmes to boost exit and allow people to go into other, much more secure forms of work are also hugely important.
Today, the Crown Prosecution Service rightly recognises women’s involvement in prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation, yet under existing law women involved in street-based sexual exploitation are criminalised for loitering and soliciting, creating a barrier to exiting and rebuilding their lives. It is currently illegal to place a call card advertising prostitution in a phone box, yet apparently it is perfectly legal for companies to make millions of pounds by knowingly hosting prostitution adverts online. We have an Act to combat modern slavery—the Modern Slavery Act 2015—but it has a huge hole in it, because it fails to acknowledge that prostitution drives sex trafficking in the first place. We have a law that prohibits men from soliciting women for sex on the street, but it gives them the green light to walk into a brothel and sexually exploit them behind closed doors.
That is not good enough. As I said to the Minister here this morning, when she very kindly appeared before the Women and Equalities Committee, it has profound implications not just for women involved in prostitution, but for all women, because it perpetuates the myth that men have an absolute right to sex and therefore their sense of entitlement should overwhelm many others in society. The Minister for Women and Equalities, who is also a Secretary of State, put it best when she said earlier this year:
“You cannot help and support people, you cannot give them hope and a chance, you cannot promote human rights or the dignity of every human being—whilst paying them for sex, and whilst funding an industry that exploits them.”
I wholeheartedly agree.
The United Nations, which is having to confront sexual abuse and exploitation within its own ranks, has published a “Glossary on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse” for anyone who is not clear what that means. It states:
“‘Sexual exploitation’ is a broad term, which includes a number of acts…including ‘transactional sex’”.
Transactional sex is defined as:
“The exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex”.
Offering someone money—or drugs, food or a place to stay—in exchange for them performing sex acts is abusive and exploitative. It is never acceptable. The aim of our law must be to end commercial sexual exploitation, not to “manage” it, not to regulate where it happens, not simply to pick up the pieces and not to prevent only the most heinous acts. Our responsibility as lawmakers is clear: it is to end sexual exploitation. And to end sexual exploitation, we have to end the demand.
How to combat demand is not a big mystery. As with any other form of violence against women, it starts with the law sending a clear signal that exploiting someone by paying them for sex is never acceptable, and that those who do will be held to account. We have to shift the burden of criminality away from women who are exploited in the sex trade and place it where it belongs: on those who create the demand. The “end-demand” approach is often referred to as the Nordic model or the sex buyer law. This three-pronged strategy involves criminalising paying for sex, decriminalising selling sex, and providing support and exiting services for people exploited through the sex trade.
France, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Iceland and Norway have all adopted end-demand legislation. The first country to do it—this is important—was Sweden, which in 1999 criminalised paying for sex and decriminalised selling it as part of a Government Bill to tackle violence against women. Mia de Faoite, a survivor of prostitution, has said of Sweden’s decision to introduce the law:
“Prostitution is, was and always will be an absolute affront to human dignity and I know that because I have lived and witnessed it. Sweden didn’t do a radical thing or a controversial thing. Sweden just did the right thing in the name of freedom, justice and equality.
Colleagues will speak about the clear and substantial evidence that end-demand legislation works, in Sweden and elsewhere. However, I want to make this point, to the Minister and to the Government: if neighbouring countries are adopting legislation that makes it harder for people to be trafficked and sexually exploited, we run the risk that it will become easier to do that in England and Wales—on our streets and behind closed doors in every community we represent—because there is such a clear basis on which money can be made. We cannot divorce ourselves from what is happening in this great move across much of western Europe.
It is sometimes claimed that making paying for sex a criminal offence would drive prostitution “underground” and make it inherently unsafe. First, it is not possible to make sexual exploitation safe. The moment the money goes on the side or the counter, someone is buying consent and that sex buyer believes that they have an absolute right or entitlement. Secondly, as a recent European Commission study on trafficking points out about that policy, there is
“a logical fallacy at its heart since some level of visibility is required.”
In other words, if I can leave this room today and purchase sex by finding someone’s details online, so can the police. If sex buyers can locate women in prostitution, so can the police and support services.
To quote Detective Superintendent Kajsa Wahlberg, Sweden’s national rapporteur on trafficking in human beings,
“prostitution activities are not and cannot be pushed underground. The profit of traffickers, procurers and other prostitution operators is obviously dependent on that men easily can access women who they wish to purchase for prostitution purposes. If law enforcement agencies want to find out where prostitution activities takes place, the police can.”
In Sweden they have been doing that for nearly 20 years. We can look at the evidence of what has happened in that country.
The second myth I want to address is that by fully decriminalising the sex trade—an argument advocated by some—including brothel-keeping and pimping, women are made safer. That could not be further from the truth. It legitimises and fuels demand. Demand is met by significantly increased levels of trafficking. A cross-sectional analysis of up to 150 countries found that trafficking flows are larger into countries where prostitution is legal. That seems logical. Similarly, an analysis of European countries found that sex trafficking was most prevalent in nations with legalised prostitution regimes. The researchers suggested that
“slacker prostitution laws make it more profitable to traffic persons to a country.”
Take the Netherlands, for example. Third-party profiteering was decriminalised there in 2000. Seven years later, the national police force estimated that between 50% and 90% of women in the country’s legal prostitution trade “work involuntarily”. An evaluation of the law in 2007, commissioned by the Dutch Parliament, found that pimping was still “a very common phenomenon” that
“does not seem to have decreased.”
Fieldwork researchers reported that a “great majority” of women in Amsterdam’s infamous window brothels,
“works with a so-called boyfriend or pimp.”
Let me makes this point: there are few women directly involved in selling sex who profit from it. There is undoubtedly a huge supply of money, estimated by some to be £5 billion or £6 billion of our economy, but that money is not finding its way into the pockets of women who are exploited through this trade; it ends up in the pockets of pimps, exploiters and those who benefit from trafficking.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech. I am using this intervention to say that I have been advised that it would be inappropriate for me to speak today, given certain things that are happening in west Yorkshire. He knows that I have been campaigning on this issue for a very long time. This is my opportunity to say that I am here absolutely supporting him.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend.
The Government cannot continue to kick this can down the road. To some degree, all of us are culpable on that. We need comprehensive legislative reform with the aim of tackling demand as its underlying principle. We have a duty as parliamentarians to confront and take action against sexual exploitation, however difficult or uncomfortable that may be. The Government must tackle demand by criminalising paying for sex and decriminalising those who are exploited.
If hon. Members wish to remove their jackets—including the Clerk and the Hansard Reporters—they are entitled to do so, because of the rudimentary cooling system that we have today. I will, unusually, call Sarah Champion from the same side, because I know that she has been very significant in getting this motion to the House.
It is not only a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley; it is also a relief to be able to do so and I thank you for your kindness in enabling it to happen.
We need to recognise that there is a crisis of commercial sexual exploitation in this country. The trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable women and girls around the UK to be sexually abused is taking place on an industrial scale. That is for one simple reason: demand. There are a minority of men in this country who are willing to pay to sexually access women’s bodies. Currently, the law gives them licence to do this. For too long, Parliament has turned a blind eye to the suffering and societal carnage that these men create.
I am here today with two clear messages for the Minister. First, there is a sexual abuse scandal happening right now on her watch. It is enabled by prostitution advertising websites and driven predominantly by heterosexual men who pay for sex. Secondly, there is a solution: making paying for sex a crime to help to stem demand and then helping the women exploited in the sex trade to exit it, by removing penalties for soliciting and providing them with properly resourced support services. The Government and the officials who advise them cannot claim that they did not know what was going on or were not aware of the scale of the problem. To end the exploitation, we have to end the demand.
Let me contextualise the scale of this problem. A recent inquiry into organised sexual exploitation by the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade, of which I am a member, found that sexual exploitation of women and girls by organised crime groups is widespread across the UK. There are at least 212 active, ongoing police operations into modern slavery cases involving sexual exploitation in the UK. Our inquiry suggests that this represents just a small fraction of the true scale of organised sexual exploitation.
While most police forces do not proactively work to identify all the brothels in their area, some do track them. The scale that they find is astonishing. Leicestershire police visited 156 brothels, encountering 421 women in the year ending 31 December 2017. Some 86% of those women in the brothels were Romanian. Northumbria police visited 81 brothels between March 2016 and April 2018. Of the 259 women they met in the brothels, 75% were Romanian. Over half of those brothels were recorded as connected to other brothels, agencies or non-UK organised crime groups. Greater Manchester police has identified 324 potential new brothel addresses since March 2015. It told our inquiry:
“the majority of those identified reflect the hotspot areas for modern slavery in Greater Manchester.”
Let me quote Detective Sergeant Stuart Peall from Lancashire constabulary:
“From what we can evidence there nearly always appears to be a man or some sort of control involved. The females we encounter very rarely pay for their own advertisements. They also don’t pay for their own flights into the UK. There is clear organisation from what we have seen”.
The methods used by these organised crime groups to recruit women include deception, coercion and the exploitation of women and girls’ pre-existing vulnerabilities.
Let us be clear: women who are trafficked by organised crime groups are being subjected not to forced labour, but to rape. Based on evidence from the Poppy Project, Equality Now calculated that, on average, victims are exploited into prostitution for between eight and 20 months. Most women who are trafficked in the UK reported being forced to have sex six or seven days a week and see an estimated average of 13 sex buyers per day. From that, we can extrapolate that the average victim of trafficking for sexual exploitation is raped anywhere between 2,798 and 6,828 times. Those rapes are committed by men who pay for sex. If we scale that figure up to the 1,185 women referred to the national referral mechanism for sexual exploitation in 2017, we start to see the scale of the problem.
We must recognise that commercial sexual exploitation is part of a continuum of violence against women and girls. Commonly, it begins when they are just girls. Many women who are involved in prostitution experienced different forms of abuse, often sexual, when they were children.
The grooming process, and the beginning of a girl’s experience of the continuum of violence, is worth reflecting on. For many girls, it begins with something seemingly innocent, such as getting a slightly older boyfriend and going for car rides with him. Things then become more risky, and she might drink alcohol or smoke cannabis at the boyfriend’s insistence, and the pressure to return the favour with sexual acts then begins. Very quickly, as happened repeatedly in my constituency of Rotherham, that becomes organised sexual exploitation where the girls are passed between adult men who systematically sexually exploit them in the most horrific ways. Since the events in Rotherham came to light, attitudes in the UK have started to shift towards recognising that those girls are not prostitutes who willingly choose to sell their bodies, but victims who are exploited by men operating in gangs.
Now that child sexual exploitation is viewed as a national crisis, it is time for us to recognise that sexual exploitation does not stop when people turn 18. Instead, the girls who do not get the support they need to escape and repair their lives continue to be sexually exploited, perhaps by the same organised gangs or pimps, into their 20s, 30s and beyond. Finally, after years of campaigning, we consider the grooming and subsequent exploitation of a child to be abhorrent, but we must ask why society’s attitude is that when they turn 18, they are suddenly consenting adults who make a choice about selling sex, even when we are aware of past childhood abuse, trafficking, slavery, coercive control, intimidation, violence or drugs and alcohol dependencies in the background.
Let us confront the fact that the term “free choice” rarely, if ever, accurately describes a person’s path into prostitution and the sex trade. Sometimes we are talking about girls who have not escaped their early life trauma, who were perhaps in and out of care, groomed under the influence of drugs in their teens, or repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted throughout their lives. That may sound emotive, but it is corroborated by the supporting statistics. Home Office research shows that 50% of women became involved in prostitution before the age of 18, and three out of four women involved are aged under 21. Another Home Office study in 2016 showed that 70% of the women had spent time in care, and 45% had previously experienced sexual abuse. Do we really believe that those women and girls can give informed consent when many are inherently vulnerable or trapped in a cycle of abuse?
Commercial sexual exploitation is happening on a staggering scale, and prostitution procurement websites, where women are advertised to sex buyers, are key enablers of it. A buyer can go to sites such as Vivastreet or Adultwork, casually search for women in his area and contact the mobile number provided to arrange an appointment. It is quick, easy and highly profitable for the web companies. The Joint Slavery and Trafficking Analysis Centre, which is hosted by the National Crime Agency, says that those prostitution websites
“represent the most significant enabler of sexual exploitation in the UK”.
Claims that the sites enhance women’s safety are deeply misguided. Prostitution advertising websites significantly increase the ease and scale of organised sexual exploitation in this country.
Thankfully, other countries have started to act. Since the United States signed into law the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 earlier this year, Adultwork and a host of other sites have shut down their prostitution adverts there. In France, the Paris prosecutor launched an official investigation on charges of aggravated pimping into Vivastreet, which has since shut down its prostitution adverts in France. In Britain, our inadequate laws against commercial sexual exploitation prohibit a person from placing a call card for prostitution in a phone booth but allow companies such as Vivastreet to make millions advertising women online. That has to change urgently. This week, Vivastreet claimed that it is
“working closely with the Home Office to help develop an industry-wide approach to identifying and preventing online trafficking.”
That is not enough. The Government must take on corporate pimps, not collaborate with them.
Our law needs to be updated so that it clearly sets out that it is a criminal offence to facilitate or profit from someone else’s prostitution. Under section 53A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is already an offence to buy sex from a person who has been subject to force, coercion or exploitation by a third party, which means it does not have to be proved that the buyer was aware of the exploitation of the person they were paying for sex with. Sadly, research by Dr Andrea Matolcsi of Bristol University in 2017 suggested that there was only a low level of awareness of the offence and that the maximum fine of £1,000 did not deter buyers.
Our laws are simply not fit for purpose. To reduce demand for prostitution and sex trafficking, the law has to send a clear message that it is never acceptable to exploit someone by paying them for sex. To do that, the Government should urgently extend the existing prohibition against paying for sex in a public place to make it a criminal offence in all locations.
Although prostitution websites facilitate commercial sexual exploitation, they are not the root cause. The root cause is demand. Only a minority of men pay for sex. A study of 6,000 men by University College London found that 3.6% of men reported having paid for sex in the last five years. The men who were more likely to have paid for sex were young professionals with high numbers of unpaid sexual partners, which quashes the myth that the sex trade is a place of last resort for the lonely few. It is the demand of those men that drives the supply of mainly vulnerable women and girls into the sex trade. It is the money of those buyers that lines the pockets of the pimps and traffickers. The sex trade, and all the harm and suffering it entails, exists because of them.
Let me be clear: someone paying someone else to perform sex acts on them is abuse, just as exchanging accommodation, employment, services or other goods in return for sex is sexual abuse. A man who pays for sex is not a regular consumer, innocently availing themselves of a worker’s services. Offering someone money, goods or services for sex is sexual coercion. It is a form of violence against women.
Globally, 96% of victims of sexual exploitation are women and girls. When people pay for sex, they undergo a convenient act of forgetting. Only 44% of sex buyers who took part in a London-based study thought that prostitution had a very or extremely negative impact on women, which shows that many people who pay for sex ignore the fact that the women they pay for are likely to be vulnerable, may be in desperate need of money to pay off debts to their pimp, and have little or no agency in the situation. They do not think about the life or events that lead a woman to being in a brothel as opposed to working in an office or a shop.
There has rightly been outrage about the recently publicised cases of men working for aid agencies who exploited women overseas by paying them for sex, but where is the outrage when they come back to this country and sexually abuse in our own backyard? Across the UK, men are paying to sexually exploit vulnerable women and girls who they have shopped for online. We need to join the dots between prostitution, modern slavery, sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation. The common thread is men who pay to sexually access the bodies of women and girls.
There is no separate and distinct market specifically for sex-trafficked victims; the market is for sex. Detective Constable Julie Currie of the Metropolitan police’s modern slavery and kidnapping unit told the APPG:
“In the vast majority of cases, males paying for sex would give no thought to where the woman has come from or what circumstances have led her into prostitution.”
As Dr Maddy Coy from Florida University states:
“Policy approaches which presume a distinct market for the purchase of girls’ bodies for sex from that of the adult women are blinkered to the myriad of connections that span the age of majority.”
What links these forms of exploitation is the men who pay to abuse women and girls, their sexist attitude of entitlement and objectification, and the sex inequality that underpins it. Crucially, we need to acknowledge that there is nothing inevitable about this exploitation, and that we can and must take action to tackle demand from men who exploit vulnerable people by paying for sex.
I say to the Minister today that to reduce the demand for prostitution and sex trafficking, the law has to send a clear message that it is never acceptable to exploit someone by paying for sex. To do that, the Government should urgently extend the existing prohibition against paying for sex in a public space to make it a criminal offence in all locations. At the same time, it is vital that people exploited through prostitution are not criminalised, but instead supported to exit prostitution and access the services they need. As a result, penalties for loitering and soliciting should be removed from the statute book.
This “end demand” approach to prostitution is often referred to as the Nordic model, or the sex buyer law. So far it has been adopted in Sweden, Norway, France, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, so it is already in operation on UK soil. We urgently need to extend this legislation to the rest of the UK.
There is extensive evidence of the effectiveness of the sex buyer law in reducing demand. In Sweden, which was the first country to adopt an “end demand” approach back in 1999, anonymous surveys conducted in 1996 and 2008 revealed that the proportion of men in Sweden who reported paying for sex dropped from 13% to 8% in that period. The most recent study of prevalence rates found that 0.8% of men in Sweden had paid for sex in the previous 12 months, which is the smallest proportion recorded in two decades and the lowest in Europe.
Crucially, public attitudes have changed. In 1996, 45% of women and 20% of men in Sweden supported criminalising paying for sex. By 2008, support for such criminalisation had risen to 79% of women and 60% of men. That is the point of the law—it changes attitudes and prevents commercial sexual exploitation from happening in the first place.
Reducing demand also makes countries more hostile destinations for traffickers. A review of the sex buyer law in Norway concluded:
“A reduced market and increased law enforcement posit larger risks for human traffickers... The law has thus affected important pull factors and reduced the extent of human trafficking in Norway in comparison to a situation without a law.”
Similarly, the head of Stockholm police’s prostitution unit has pointed out:
“How will the traffickers survive without sex buyers? The sex buyers are the crucial sponsors of organised crime. The traffickers are not into this because of sex... They are in this because of the money.”
Paying to sexually access another person’s body is a choice—a choice to abuse. The law must serve as a deterrent and send a clear message that society will not stand idly by while a minority of men exploit vulnerable women and girls.
Changing the law around the selling and buying of sex is crucial to prevent sexual exploitation, but there are other ways in which we can reduce demand. We should seek to change attitudes towards women, exploitation and abuse through education. We need to confront the uncomfortable truth that many children are being groomed for sexual exploitation from an early age, so we really need age-appropriate relationship education in primary schools. When it comes to reducing the demand for commercial sexual exploitation, we should also educate boys about respecting women’s bodies, about gender-based violence and about negative gender stereotypes. That is why I am very sad that last week the Secretary of State for Education rowed back on his commitment to introduce relationships education in 2019; now it will hopefully be introduced in 2020.
Providing routes out of commercial sexual exploitation is also important. Solutions are required that provide wraparound care at the moment that a woman presents in crisis. The Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, which proposes the provision of up to 12 months of rehabilitative care, recovery and support for victims, could be vital in ensuring that vulnerable women and girls are fully supported in their exit from prostitution.
In line with that, the Government need to properly fund sexual violence support services, such as Rape Crisis, which are struggling to keep up with demand. As the MP for Rotherham, I have witnessed to what happens when, confronted with the evidence of widespread sexual abuse, those in authority have looked away; when they have described exploitation as a choice; when they have dismissed it, or minimised it; and when they have known about it but failed to do all they could to prevent it.
We have a duty to act now, not to look away. It is time for this Government to recognise that prostitution is a form of violence against women and girls. I urge the Minister to legislate now to end demand by criminalising those who pay for sex and by closing the loophole that enables websites to facilitate abuse. Being abused is not a choice, but our seeming indifference to it is.
Before I call the next Member, Fiona Bruce, I will just say that I do not intend to put a formal time limit on speeches. I think everyone will have time to speak, provided that they bear in mind that I intend to call the first winding-up speech at 3.28 pm. Members therefore have about six or so minutes, without a formal time limit.
I commend the speeches of the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Luton South (Mr Shuker), who are my colleagues in the all-party parliamentary group, and I wholeheartedly support their powerful expressions of support for women who are in prostitution and trapped in prostitution.
Although prostitution is often referred to as the oldest profession, it is more accurately viewed as one of the most enduring forms of exploitation. It has been my privilege to meet and talk with several women who have lived through prostitution. The stories they tell of being treated as an object or commodity, and of feeling that they had no choice but to sell sex in order to survive, are a sobering contrast to the fictional glamour in the popular myths surrounding the industry. As one of those survivors, Rachel Moran, has written in her excellent autobiographical book, “Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution”:
“I pay no respect or accommodation to the glamorising or sensationalising of prostitution. These are not true depictions of prostitution...My assessment of prostitution and my opinions of it I take from the years I spent enduring it and everything I ever saw, heard, felt, witnessed or otherwise experienced at that time. There was no glamour there. Not even the flicker of it. Not for any of us”.
No one reading Rachel’s book could believe anything other than that women involved in prostitution are abused women; no one could doubt that prostitution is an utterly exploitative experience.
As we have heard, circumstances in early years—such as homelessness, family breakdown, problems with drugs or alcohol, or being in local authority care—are often precursors to young people entering prostitution, which then becomes a trap for years.
I, too, have met Rachel more than once and read her book; it is truly compelling. Will my hon. Friend say a little more about the evidence that we both heard on this issue on the Conservative party human rights commission—that it is wrong to describe prostitution as a genuine choice, because there are so many underlying reasons for it that it would be wrong to say that those in prostitution are there out of choice?
Absolutely; I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. The argument that women—it is mainly women—who are engaged in prostitution and being paid for sex are consenting is a fallacy. They are never consenting; they are coerced. They are coerced by their circumstances, such as those I have described, and then exploited by those who use them for sex and by the pimps who sell them for sex.
Research for the Scottish Government has shown that
“most respondents who provide services and support to those involved in prostitution emphasised a range of risks and adverse impacts associated with prostitution in the short and longer term in relation to general and mental health, safety and wellbeing and sexual heath.”
The loss of self as a result of being objectified time and time again comes across profoundly when one talks to or about women who have been involved in prostitution. The techniques that they operate to block out from their minds what is happening to them, so that they think of themselves as an object, are so profound that they often cannot then move on with their lives.
Although some British nationals, especially young people, are affected, as we have heard, commercial sexual exploitation now often affects foreign nationals who have been trafficked here and are vulnerable. A Police Foundation study in Bristol found that only 17% of the people providing sexual services in the city’s brothels were British.
Prostitution and the commercial sex industry are intrinsically linked with modem slavery. As we have heard, the market for commercial sex operates as a pull for traffickers and organised crime groups. It is heart-rending when one hears accounts from organisations such as Hope for Justice. I believe that the daily figure of 13 sex buyers a day mentioned by the hon. Member for Rotherham is often a gross underestimate. I remember an account from the founder of Hope for Justice, which rescues trafficked women from prostitution. On one occasion he was told about a young girl who had been rescued. One day she had decided she would count how many men had abused her that day. After 100 she stopped counting.
To reduce modem slavery we must reduce the demand that creates the market in which so many people are exploited. That is why I support what has been said here today. At the same time, we must also provide real exit routes for women who are trapped in prostitution. It is not enough to say, “You can have health checks and clean condoms.” They need genuine opportunities to gain education, to be rehoused, and to understand how they can support themselves in a different way, because they often see themselves as having no alternatives at all.
The Conservative party human rights commission, which I chair, is in the middle of its own inquiry into the different legal approaches to prostitution and the impact they have on the fight against modern slavery. I am very pleased to see the evidence coming through now from the countries where “end demand” legislation has been implemented, including in Northern Ireland, where the law is fairly new. The police have found the offence much more effective than the partial offence that existed before, which we still have here. I congratulate the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland on securing its first conviction two weeks ago in a contested court case following the implementation of the new law.
The culture has been changed in Sweden, as we have heard. It is now considered almost demeaning to pay for sex there. Only a minority of men in this country pay for sexual services—only about 11% of men have ever paid for sex and only 3.6% have done so in recent years, according to the most recent survey data published. However, their behaviour harms individuals, fuels organised crime and contributes to the global networks of modern slavery.
Many people suggest that the law should not intervene in matters of prostitution. They say that that would stray into regulating the behaviour of consenting adults, but, as we have heard, one of those people, often not an adult, is not consenting. The law needs to be looked at again. If the cost of protecting such extremely vulnerable people from exploitation and modern slavery is to reduce the choices of a small group of people, it is a cost we should be prepared to pay.
I welcome the research that the Government have commissioned into the scale and nature of prostitution in England and Wales, and I commend the Minister for her own interest in the subject. I look forward to the findings of that report. I hope that perhaps during the summer recess the Minister will have an opportunity to read Rachel Moran’s book and that the researchers undertaking work of the inquiry will look at it, too.
It is a pleasure to speak on this issue, which I have a great interest in. I congratulate the hon. Members for Luton South (Mr Shuker) and for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on setting the scene. I will give the Northern Ireland perspective and describe what we have done legislatively. I suggest the Minister does the same here on the mainland, because it is the way forward.
Two weeks ago a court in Northern Ireland convicted a man in the first case to be contested under the legislation introduced in 2015, under which it is an offence to pay for, or, in this particular case, attempt to pay for, the sexual services of another person. One might be forgiven for thinking it has taken some time for the first conviction to be made, but, in addition to that case, data up to the end of March this year records 13 individuals who have been cautioned or received another discretionary disposal having admitted their guilt.
Would I like to see the Police Service of Northern Ireland making greater use of the offence? Yes, I certainly would, and so would you, Mr Paisley. However, the arrests show that this simple offence is much more effective than the more complex offence we had before. Previously our law targeted kerb crawlers who seek to buy sex in public and those who purchase sexual services from a person subjected to force, which are the laws that England and Wales still have. The kerb crawling offence has limitations because it can address only those who seek to purchase sex in a public place, yet research suggests that the majority of prostitution in the UK now happens indoors in brothels, private residences and hotels. The offence that applies where a person is subjected to force is difficult to apply because, although there is no requirement that the offender know about the coercion, there needs to be proof that the coercion is happening, which is not always easy to document in the time required by a relatively low-level offence. PSNI statistics show that no one was arrested or charged for that offence in the whole time that it operated, so the change in legislation has given the PSNI the power it needs to be effective and to change attitudes. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that we need such changes here on the mainland.
One objection to the sex buyer law is that it has been used only in Nordic countries that have a different jurisdiction from our own. The examples that the hon. Gentleman is giving are powerful because they show that our own jurisdiction can cope with such laws and that they work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I agree wholeheartedly with him.
We changed the law in Northern Ireland because we needed a law that would enable us to tackle the demand for commercial sexual exploitation more effectively. The Northern Ireland Assembly overwhelmingly supported the provision by 81 votes to 10, with the four largest parties in the Assembly—the Democratic Unionist party, Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Ulster Unionist party—in support. Both Unionists and nationalists supported the legislation. Lord Morrow, who was a Member of the Assembly at the time, was one of those who did the good work.
People are easily moved around the UK, across the border with the Republic of Ireland and more widely within Europe. Germany and the Netherlands, which have legalised prostitution, have become destination countries for so-called sex tourists and also for traffickers and their victims. Legalisation has not stamped out organised crime or trafficking. It has not worked. The change that we have had in Northern Ireland is needed here. Fighting sex trafficking by using the criminal justice system might even be harder in the legalised prostitution sector.
Some might ask, “Why tackle the demand at all?” The simple answer is that without the demand for paid sex there would be no need for a continuing supply of women tricked, bullied or forced by circumstances into prostitution. Reducing the demand is the key to reducing the number of people who end up in commercial sexual exploitation and is the key to reducing human trafficking.
I want to quote from a lady who addressed the Northern Ireland Assembly and came here as well. Her name is Mia de Faoite. She spoke powerfully at an event in Stormont to mark the coming into force of the offence of purchasing sex, and spoke in this House as well. She said:
“It is my firm belief that everybody on this Island be they born here or not is entitled to live a dignified life, and prostitution is the systematic stripping of one’s human dignity and I know that because I have lived and witnessed it, and it must no longer be tolerated and now in Northern Ireland the next generation of girls, will grow up knowing that the bodies to which they have been born into are respected and at no time will they ever be up for sale.”
She spoke at an event that took place here in Westminster, which I co-hosted with the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the former Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi). Women and girls across the whole of the UK deserve the same freedom. Northern Ireland has led the way in the British Isles. The Republic of Ireland followed suit, and it is now time for England, Scotland and Wales to join us. Taking action to tackle the demand for commercial sexual exploitation is the first step, and I encourage the Minister to follow the actions of those in Northern Ireland. That is the way forward.
I shall keep my remarks short, and hopefully then the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) will be able to speak. While I was gathering my thoughts for the debate, I was reminded by a number of people of the importance of the terminology and language I should adopt. I discovered that two groups of people on the same side of the debate disagree about that language and terminology. Experience tells me that as a man I am walking on eggshells, but we shall never change the world for the better if we cannot enter into open and honest debate about issues that matter. The issue we are debating matters, and we all want a better world, so I apologise to those whom I may be about to offend. It is not my intention to disrespect them or their views, but I am putting my views as a man attempting to help, in a world where people—primarily women—are abused by men.
Most sex buyers are male, and that group pays predominantly for sexual access to the bodies of women. Therefore it is important that young men should be raised not to see women as a commodity to be bought and sold. If we do not deal with that, women will, as has happened in other countries, be trafficked and sold into a deeply exploitative trade, to supply the demand. A five-country study, led by the Immigration Council of Ireland, of men who paid for sex concluded that
“irrespective of a buyers’ knowledge of human trafficking as a crime and as a phenomenon, it is unlikely that they will consider the possibility that a seller may be a victim of trafficking when purchasing sex.”
We need to educate those doing the buying, before they even start.
The overwhelming majority of people exploited through the sex trade are highly vulnerable even before they become involved, and suffer acute harm as a result. Prostitution is about violence and control. Mia de Faoite—sorry, Mia; four or five people have butchered your second name this afternoon—is an activist and survivor of prostitution. She said, when asked why men pay for sex:
“I think it’s partly the fact that they can and society says they can and the law says they can...You must ask yourself what are they buying? It’s power. It’s a very powerful thing to have control of someone else’s body in that way. It’s a power-fix and they know it”.
We can legislate, and we may get it right. In that case we help, even if we do not completely resolve the situation. If we legislate and get it wrong we could drive prostitution underground, and that would be disastrous for those being trafficked and abused.
Criminalising paying for sex while decriminalising selling sex has been shown to reduce demand for sexual exploitation, change public attitudes, and make countries more hostile destinations for traffickers. In recognition of the centrality of combating demand in preventing sex trafficking, the Council of Europe recommended that states adopt that approach
“as the most effective tool for preventing and combating trafficking in human beings”.
I acknowledge that it is not perfect, but I believe it is the best path forward. The only way we can guarantee to resolve the issue is by reducing demand to zero. Demand for prostitution is not inevitable. Prevalence rates vary over time and between countries. Demand is context-dependent, based on a decision-making process by each man who pays to exploit someone sexually.
Most men do not pay for sex. It is a minority who do. We should have a UK-wide education programme, counteracting the growing normalisation of sexual exploitation. Through a concerted body of education we should aim to create a society where the concept of buying a person is inconceivable.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I ask the Minister to reflect on the fact that in the main Chamber today Members are considering a Government Bill to stop the sale of part of an animal from other countries. They are legislating to reduce demand for ivory. They are acting, by means of a Bill. At exactly the same moment, there are women face down being abused in this country, who have been trafficked from somewhere else or exploited here. Ivory is an important subject for me, but it is not as important as the girls in my kids’ class, and it never will be, so I ask the Government to act and not to keep kicking the matter into review after review. We can act for elephants; we should act for women.
Normally I spend time in this place giving voice to victims, or to women—standing up and speaking the voices of people who have got in touch with me. Today I want to give voice to some of the punters of sex work, to try to prove that paying for sex is not like paying for any other service; it is abuse. I apologise, because some of this is not particularly pleasant. I have three quotations from men who reviewed women they had exploited on the prostitution review website Punternet. The first states:
“This is a classic case of ‘the pretty ones don’t have to work hard’. Vicky is beautiful, but frankly can’t be arsed. She’s Polish, and her English is not good… I was reminded of the Smiths song ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’... All the while she seemed completely disinterested and mechanical... After a while, during which she remained completely unresponsive, I offered to lick her—she was stubbly, which I dislike, but carried on regardless, and got the same lack of response... I finally decided to fuck her, in mish. Her pussy was hot and tight and I came after less than ten minutes. All the while, she kept her face turned to one side.”
The next stated:
“Very pretty and young girl. Approximately 165 cm tall, nice legs and beautiful breast, nice skin. Very young... If you want to try a fresh, young (says she is 18) and pretty girl is ok, but maybe as she just started to work, is quite passive, scarcely kiss without tongue, doesn’t want to be kissed on the neck or ears, can’t do a decent blowjob and really rides badly on you, i had to stop her several times when she tried to use her mouth or when she got up on me. She really can’t speak a word of English”.
The writer says that he thinks she is Romanian “or something like that”, and that her English is “zero”.
The third stated:
“Saw this girl’s pictures on the other site and thought she looked nice. How wrong I was. She does NOT offer any of the services offered and actually had the cheek to ask for more money to perform things that she is advertising as part of her services!! Her attitude was derisory... I did have sex with her which was a bit like shagging a blow up doll. I should have asked for my money back but given the very dodgy looking bloke with a very aggressive dog downstairs I thought it best to just get out as fast as possible.”
Lovely. So that is just like any other service then. I would ask all Members of the House to think about people speaking of their daughters, wives and mothers, and the women who live in their constituencies, in that way.
There is a significant parallel between domestic violence and prostitution. The all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade found that the “boyfriend” model described by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) was a common way to coerce women into the sex trade from existing relationships. It is fairly uncommon that people get caught for that, but the following text message conversation is between two men who were convicted of sex trafficking in the UK last year. It is between Razvan Mitru, the lead member of the trafficking gang, and Alexandru Pitigoi. They are discussing recruiting Pitigoi’s girlfriend to brothels in the UK and openly acknowledge what they want to do.
“let me talk to her too cause she doesn’t really want anymore”.
Mitru replied “ why:))”. Pitigoi answered:
“cause she is not happy about it”.
“what the fuck is she not happy about?”
“and she doesn’t really like it as you can imagine it’s hard on her bro”.
“she doesn’t have a penny in her pocket and she is being fussy maybe it is hard for her but if she fucked at least she knows what for not for nothing”.
Pitigoi replied, “I know that:))”
I have met that woman hundreds of times. A review is not enough. I ask the Minister to do everything that was set out by my hon. Friends the Members for Luton South (Mr Shuker) and for Rotherham, and to do it now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Luton South (Mr Shuker) on securing the important debate. They have both campaigned relentlessly on this issue. It is unfortunate that it is happening in Westminster Hall, because it should be in the main Chamber. Too often such important discussions happen here first, when they deserve to be on the Floor of the House.
As we have heard, prostitution is a form of gendered violence. It is both a cause and a consequence of sexual inequality. It is interesting that the debate has so far focused not purely on tackling commercial sexual exploitation, but particularly on demand. As we have heard from the hon. Members for Luton South and for Rotherham, the demand from sex buyers fuels sex trafficking and organised crime. Without the demand from sex buyers, there would be no need for a supply. We are therefore looking at tackling the root cause of that form of sexual inequality, rather than a symptom.
The demand for commercial sexual exploitation is not an inevitable fact. Most men do not pay for sex, and the figures for those who do vary over time and between different countries. However, those who pay for sex are predominantly men, and although they are a minority, they make a conscious choice to do so. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) quoted the words of Rachel Moran, who said that there is no glamour in prostitution. There is sometimes a false element of choice, but the majority of people who have been exploited through the sex trade were highly vulnerable before they entered the sex industry, and often suffered acute harm as a result.
We have already heard a number of statistics and I do not want to bore Members with yet more, but it has been estimated that 152 sex workers were murdered between 1990 and 2015. Although sex workers are often victims of violent crime, such incidents often go unreported to the police. If those are the statistics we have for murder, I hate to think about how many times a day women are sexually exploited and physically abused because of this industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) rightly points out that in order to begin to tackle this problem it is essential to educate young men and boys. This is an issue of violence against women and the abuse of power. As we heard from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), the words used by those men are abhorrent; and if that is the language they use, their treatment of these women on a daily basis must be unimaginable.
The issue is not exclusive to this jurisdiction. The Scottish Government recognise that prostitution is a form of violence. As a result, the “Equally Safe” campaign in Scotland seeks to create a strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls. The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 made it an offence to exploit another human being. Exploitation is defined within the Act, which covers sexual exploitation and makes specific provision for support and assistance to victims of trafficking.
There are clear links between human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, and Europol representatives have suggested that the trafficking of human beings, particularly women and girls, has increased in countries where prostitution has been legalised. I do not believe for a single second that such measures go far enough, which is why I advocate doing more, and not only in Scotland but across the UK. We should be led by the example of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which have taken swift action in this regard. We must be careful not to allow this form of abuse to increase as a result of measures that aim to protect victims of that abuse.
As the hon. Member for Rotherham said, this is a crisis of commercial sexual exploitation on an industrial scale, and more must be done to protect vulnerable individuals from this criminal activity. Such exploitation cannot and must not go on, and I hope that the Minister will heed the comments from across the House and take further action.
I congratulate all Members who have spoken on their passionate and moving speeches. I, for one, was extremely moved.
Prostitution is a nationwide issue. Women are selling their bodies on streets up and down the country, putting their health and safety at risk. Prostitution is violence against women and girls. Each time a woman is met by a purchaser to trade a sex act for money, drugs, food or some other commodity, she is in a potentially life-endangering situation. Prostitution causes damage to those involved with it, and it can never be made completely safe.
Prostitution is the abuse of vulnerable women. Last summer I spent quite a lot of time in Swansea talking to women who were engaged in, and victims of, prostitution. One lady I met had lost her six-year-old daughter in a road accident 30 years ago. Thirty years ago I lost my eight-year-old son in a road accident. Thirty years ago the woman I met turned to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain because she had no support or family. She needed something to take the edge off it, which led her into prostitution. I, thankfully, had a loving family around me. I was cosseted and nurtured, and I am standing here today. The maxim, “There but for the grace of God go I” is so true when we do not know what is around the corner. I also noted that this woman was heavily bruised. She is in her late 50s, and I commented that she had really bad facial scarring and bad black eyes. She said, “This happens all the time. This is because I didn’t give good service.” These women hold themselves entirely responsible for not giving the service that is demanded of them by the purchasers.
Young women and girls are on the street or in backstreet brothels, selling their bodies for as little as £5, or in exchange for drugs and alcohol or, in some cases, for food or bed for the night. Those women are not dressed in expensive clothes and fancy shoes; they are in grubby tracksuits and trainers. The idea that prostitution is a choice that women have is simply not true. People are pushed into exploitative and harmful situations because they are trying to survive.
We must understand and address the root cause of prostitution, which is normally a man’s demand for sex. Using prostitutes has become so normalised that men now go to brothels with their friends before a night out. The stigma of men paying for sexual services has vanished, yet the stigma of women selling their bodies remains. As we have heard, the sex buyer law on prostitution decriminalises all those who are prostituted. It provides support services to help people to exit prostitution, and it makes buying people for sex a criminal offence, in order to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking. It makes it clear that buying people for sex is abhorrent and wrong, and it sanctions discouraging people from doing it.
Education programmes in schools, and training for police, other emergency services and frontline professionals, is vital to target sex traffickers and help those women who need support. A lack of understanding could put women straight back into the hands of their abusers—every woman I met who had been involved in prostitution was there because she repeatedly went back into the same abusive relationship, time after time, as if it was her only option and there was nothing else for her. Women need to feel that they have a place to go, and that help, support and people are available to help them break that cycle.
Women involved in prostitution should have access to excellent, reliable and life-changing information and support. They should be treated fairly, positively and—most important—respectfully, and they should be given genuine alternatives to a life of prostitution, regardless of where they find themselves. If that is not provided, those women will never break away from the situation they are in. Britain must become a hostile place for sex traffickers and other third-party profiteers of sexual exploitation. That requires a holistic approach that puts prevention at its heart, while mobilising all available measures to disrupt and robustly respond to sexual exploitation. There is no argument other than that prostitution is violence against women and girls, and we must always fight to protect women and girls from living a life of violence and abuse. These women need help and support; they do not need prison sentences or criminal records. They need our help, and they need it now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I thank the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Luton South (Mr Shuker) for securing this important debate on tackling the demand for commercial sexual exploitation. We have a full Public Gallery, and I am sure this debate is being watched on television. The accounts that have been given have clearly touched many people, and they have shown in an incredibly compelling way the risks, harms and agony that prostitution can cause to those who are most vulnerable. I also thank the all-party group on prostitution and the global sex trade for its work in this area. I am pleased to see so many of its members present in the debate, and I thank them for their report, which I read with great care.
I thank Members for addressing the House in a compelling but hard-hitting way. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) talked about the fallacy of choice and the loss of self. Those are phrases that were borne out in the quotations that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) gave from websites, and in the description the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) gave of a lady whose life path changed 30 years ago and who has suffered the terrible consequences of that. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has brought the developments occurring in Northern Ireland to the Chamber. I will be watching with interest the results of that change in their law.
The Government’s priority is to protect those selling sex from harm and exploitation and to target those who exploit vulnerable people and those involved in exploitation. Just this afternoon, a group of people are meeting just along the corridor to discuss how we can prevent exploitation in hand car washes. We know that nail bars are another area rich for exploitation. Of course, the most difficult area of exploitation is the sex industry involving adults and children.
I come to this matter drawing on my experience outside the House. I used to prosecute serious organised crime. I remember a woman who I defended many years ago. She was caught because she had illegal documentation. This was back in the 2000s, when sadly we had a different attitude towards victims of slavery. I am pleased to say we have much improved it since. She told me her story, through her interpreter, of how she came to be in our country. It was a tale not dissimilar to the tales we have heard already today. She showed me her wrists—I remember this; it haunts me—and they bore the physical scars of her experience in a brothel that she had managed to escape. She was treated as a criminal for having documentation papers that were not legitimate, and I am genuinely so pleased to say I have complete confidence that now she would be picked up, put into the national referral mechanism, treated as a victim and supported through her journey to a better life. I feel as though she and the many, many other women we have heard about are sitting in this Chamber with us as we debate this topic today.
As a Minister, however, I cannot proceed only on the basis of compelling, heartbreaking stories; I have to proceed on the basis of evidence. That is why we have commissioned research through the University of Bristol to understand the scale and nature of prostitution in the 21st century. We know it is different from how it was 10 years ago through the proliferation of the online sites that the hon. Member for Rotherham described, which I will deal with in a moment.
The Minister said clearly that she would look at the legislation in Northern Ireland. Will those who are doing the research to which she has just referred look at the evidence of what Northern Ireland has done, the change it has made, including in attitudes, and its success?
It is a team of respected academics in the field, and it would not be right for me as a Minister to their research. I am sure they will be looking at the example the hon. Gentleman mentions, as they will look at other examples across Europe. It is something I can look at, too.
Before I descend into the details, I add that I am pleased that colleagues have talked about the role that education has in tackling demand. Colleagues will know that I spend a lot of time talking about that when it comes to how some crimes are perpetuated against women and girls. Relationships education is absolutely key. The hon. Member for Rotherham mentioned the Secretary of State for Education. My understanding is that while some schools will be in a position to provide this education very quickly because they have the teachers and skill sets available, other schools are not quite at that place. We are trying to help them get to that place so that the policy is consistent and high-quality across the country.
The acts of buying and selling sex are not in themselves illegal in England and Wales, but many activities that can be associated with prostitution are offences, and we have heard about them today. When those offences were designed, the basis of them was to protect vulnerable people involved in prostitution. They relate to activities such as controlling prostitution and buying sex from someone who has been a victim of trafficking. We are aware of the different legislative approaches taken elsewhere, including the Nordic model and the regulated decriminalised approach in Germany and the Netherlands. We are seeking unequivocal evidence as to whether any one approach is better than others at tackling harm and exploitation. That must remain our priority.
The Minister has referred to the research that is going ahead. Does she not agree that if a large number of women who are involved in prostitution are being exploited—however we define that—and a small minority appear to work relatively freely and not under those same conditions, that small minority should not be able to outweigh the huge number of people being exploited? Should public policy not seek to reduce the impact on the most vulnerable first and foremost?
That is a perfectly fair and proper question. It is a question that I will have to answer when we have the independent research, which we will be able to analyse. I understand why colleagues are anxious to act immediately, but I have to act on the basis of academic research and evidence.
I know that the Minister cannot direct the research, but I have read various reports in my time working in this field. Amnesty’s report is one that is often cited against my viewpoint as someone who worked with women in the national referral mechanism. Can the Minister ensure that women in the national referral mechanism, which the Government have access to, are taken account of in the research? I cannot remember a single trafficked woman ever being asked their opinion in any research piece that I have ever seen.
I am conscious of the independence of the researchers and of giving the research the weight and respect I hope and expect it to be given. I am a little bit cautious about trying to interfere. With my modern slavery responsibilities, I am conscious of the impact of sex trafficking on people in the NRM. There is that body of evidence there as well, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right to point it out.
I am conscious of time, and I want to give hon. Members time to respond.
I am grateful, Mr Paisley.
Members have spoken compellingly about what can be done by criminal gangs who traffic and pimp women. We are looking at whether prohibition is the most effective policy response to that. We know there are some evaluations and research pointing to the benefits and negative impacts of the Nordic model. It is a contentious area, and a lot of conflicting and contradictory evidence is cited on both sides of the debate. That is why I am currently having to tread the path that I am. As I say, we are doing more to develop our evidence base. We have commissioned research from the University of Bristol. We anticipate that it will take a year to complete, with a final report expected in April next year. From that, we can look at the evidence and analyse what the best approach is.
As I have said, we know that the picture on prostitution has changed from what it was even just 10 years ago. We need to understand the nature and scale of the issue, so that we understand the potential consequences, both intended and unintended, of any changes to legislation.
The Minister is responding very thoughtfully to the comments that have been made, but will she give us her view on whether prostitution is fundamentally exploitative and the act of prostitution is a form of violence against women and girls? Whatever the researchers say, those of us who are concerned about this matter would be interested to know her view on that, having heard today’s debate.
My hon. Friend puts me in a difficult position, given that we have commissioned the research and are very clear that it has to be respected by people from across the spectrum of views, and that we will review it appropriately. I do not feel able to give my personal view given that I am speaking on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. I will say that I sat on the Home Affairs Committee some time ago when it conducted a report into prostitution. That report came to a certain viewpoint, but there were many shades of view in that report. I feel it is right that colleagues know that.
We are clear that we have to help victims, by protecting them and helping them to leave prostitution and get into the way of life that they seek outside prostitution. We are not waiting for the publication of the research for that to happen. We have provided more than £2 million to organisations supporting sex workers, including the £650,000 from the violence against women and girls service transformation fund that we have given to the police and crime commissioner of Merseyside to provide a victim-focused service for sex workers—
Forgive me. In that case, may Hansard note that when I have said “sex workers”, I was referring also to prostitutes, and vice versa? I do not want to fall over on the language, as other hon. Members have mentioned.
In addition, our focus on protecting victims extends to the £13 million trusted relationships fund, which we launched in February. [Interruption.] I am sorry about my microphone, Mr Paisley—it seems to be doing something. I do not have Siri on me, just in case anyone is wondering. The trusted relationships fund will provide funding over four years for initiatives to protect the most vulnerable young people from child sexual exploitation and wider forms of criminal exploitation. We have received more than 100 expressions of interest from local authorities for initiatives aimed at developing the protection that builds resilience in children and increases the consistency and quality of support for children and young people who are at risk.
The Government’s strategy to tackle sex trafficking facilitated via online classified advert sites, otherwise known as adult service sites, comprises three main strands of activity. First, the National Crime Agency is leading a multi-agency operational plan to investigate, disrupt and prevent sex trafficking facilitated via such websites. I have visited the unit at which that work is done. Again, I thank the officers involved in that work. They sit at computer screens, see the websites, read words very similar to those that have already been cited in the debate, and they then have to find a way of dealing with that when they leave the office and go home to their loved ones. My eternal thanks and gratitude go to them for doing that.
Secondly, the operational push is supported by the development and use of innovative technological capabilities to identify trafficking online. Thirdly, in support of the work the Home Office has spoken to the largest adult services websites operating in the UK so that it takes a proactive role in identifying trafficking-related material and preventing such material from being hosted. I am clear that the websites have a responsibility. Through engagement with such industries, we seek to ensure that they do what they should to ensure that their sites do not host criminal and exploitative behaviour.
Colleagues have mentioned the United States’ approach. Alongside our current work, we continue to monitor the impact in the US of the recent change in legislation brought in by the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, known as FOSTA. The Act gives sex trafficking victims more power to sue websites that knowingly support sex trafficking. Although such an approach has much to commend it at first blush, we are conscious of some emerging evidence that the prohibition of such sites results in the displacement, rather than the prevention, of abuse, and disperses trafficking-related advertisements across myriad smaller websites where they are harder to investigate. However, we will keep looking at that and see whether there are lessons to be learned from that approach, and from approaches elsewhere.
I will give my time to the Minister, because I would really like her to answer three questions. First, will she legislate to ensure that websites cannot financially benefit from exploited women? Secondly, will she stop criminalising women who are forced into prostitution? Thirdly, will she criminalise both the buyers and those who force women, and benefit from forcing women, into prostitution?
I am so sorry—I was unable to note all the questions. I suspect and hope that this is the first of a programme of debates that we will have on this issue in the period while the research is being developed. May I take those questions away? The hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot commit to legislate on my feet in Westminster Hall—would that it were so—but I undertake to write to her on those points. She knows, given the work that she has done in other areas and on other matters, that I am always more than willing to listen; indeed, it is my privilege to do so. I will take away her questions and consider them, and we will see where we get to.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered tackling demand for commercial sexual exploitation.