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Sexual Exploitation

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2020

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to criminalise paying for sex; to decriminalise selling sex; to create offences relating to enabling or profiting from another person’s sexual exploitation; to make associated provision about sexual exploitation online; to make provision for support services for victims of sexual exploitation; and for connected purposes.

This is a Bill to bust the business model of sex trafficking. Today, the UK is a high-value, low-risk destination for sex traffickers. Why? Because our law fails on two critical fronts: first, it fails to discourage the very thing that drives trafficking for sexual exploitation—demand—and secondly, it allows ruthless individuals to facilitate and profit from sexual exploitation. What does this mean in practice? It means that the minority of men in England and Wales who pay for sex do so with impunity, fuelling a brutal sex trafficking trade and causing untold harm to victims. It also means that profit-making pimping websites operate free from criminal sanction, helping sex traffickers to quickly and easily advertise their victims and reaping enormous profits from doing so.

Right now there is a sexual-exploitation scandal playing out in towns and cities across the UK. An inquiry by the predecessor of the all-party parliamentary group on commercial sexual exploitation, which I chair, found that the UK sex trade is dominated by organised crime, with sex trafficking taking place on an industrial scale. Vulnerable women are moved around networks of brothels and hotel rooms to be raped and abused by men who pay for sex. The trauma and suffering inflicted on victims of this abhorrent trade is truly horrific.

One woman who was trafficked by an organised crime group and abused by men in the UK recalls:

“To begin with [the offenders] were my friends but, as soon as we came to England, they started to physically abuse me. He beat me many times because I was not earning him enough money…Even though the clients did not physically abuse me I felt abused because I was forced to have sex with them even when I did not want to do so. Sometimes that was painful. After a while, I felt disgusted by what I was doing and I wanted to stop but [he] wanted more money and he forced me to continue. I was scared because he kept threatening me that he was going to hurt my mother.”

So, who are the women who are being subject to this horrific abuse? Research by the APPG shows that it is predominantly vulnerable, non-UK-national women who are being abused in brothels across Britain, and a significant proportion of them come from one particular country: Romania. Over a period of two years, Leicestershire police visited 156 brothels, encountering 421 women, of whom 86% were from Romania. Northumbria police visited 81 brothels over two years, and of the 259 women they encountered in those brothels, 75% were Romanian.

What motivates the traffickers and pimps? The answer is simple: money. Trafficking for sexual exploitation is the most profitable form of modern slavery. Take, for example, a British man who was convicted in 2017 of trafficking and sexually exploiting vulnerable women. He made £1.6 million a year from his brothels. Sex trafficking is profit-driven. The crucial question to ask, though, is where those profits come from. The answer is sex buyers. Only 3.6% of men in the UK have paid for sex in the past five years, but this demand drives the supply of vulnerable women into brothels in Britain. It is these men who commit the thousands upon thousands of rapes and sexual assaults perpetrated against victims of trafficking every year in this country.

Here is what one sex buyer wrote on a website dedicated to men’s reviews of women they have paid for sex:

“Very pretty and young girl…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…she really can’t speak a word of English (is Romanian) so even [girlfriend experience] is a zero.”

He paid £70 to do that.

Here is another reviewer:

“This is a classic case of ‘the pretty ones don’t have to work hard’…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...I finally decided to fuck her…All the while, she kept her face turned to one side.”

That man paid £100 to do that to her.

Any would-be trafficker who wants to get their hands on sex buyers’ money receives a very special helping hand in the United Kingdom: from pimping websites, where they can advertise victims to sex buyers completely legally. The advertiser simply fills out an online form and pays to publish the advert. Meanwhile, sex buyers browse the website for free. Adverts show how much she will cost, what sex acts he can select, where she is based and when she is available. The sex buyer, remaining completely anonymous, simply calls the mobile number to place his order.

A few highly lucrative pimping websites dominate this online market, centralising and concentrating the UK customer base for traffickers. It makes the whole business of sex trafficking easier, quicker and more efficient. One police force reported to the APPG that a trafficker it caught had spent £25,000 advertising his victims on a pimping website, but the police were not alerted. Instead, the man was given his own account manager.

To stop women being raped and abused for profit, we must dismantle the business model of this sex trafficking trade. That will require two key measures: first, preventing the demand driving sex trafficking by criminalising paying for sex; and secondly, stopping website companies and other third parties aiding and profiting from this appalling crime by making it a criminal offence to enable or profit from the prostitution of another person. We must also stop the appalling practice of victims of sexual exploitation being prosecuted for soliciting. That offence should be removed from the statute books. Instead, we should establish a well-resourced, comprehensive network of support and exiting services for people who have been or are sexually exploited. Those measures would shift the burden of criminality from women and place it where it belongs: on those who perpetrate and profit from this abuse.

This demand reduction approach is already in place in countries including France, Sweden, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Israel, Iceland and Norway, and it works. An official evaluation of Sweden’s Sex Purchase Act reported:

“it is clear that the ban on the purchase of sexual services acts as a barrier to human traffickers and procurers who are considering establishing themselves in Sweden.”

As Dr Monica O’Connor of the Sexual Exploitation Research Programme states,

“simply allowing the prostitution industry to grow, increases the flow of trafficked people to that jurisdiction; conversely, addressing demand and reducing the size of the market for prostitution-related activities is an effective anti-trafficking measure.”

That is why the United Nations Palermo protocol stipulates:

“States Parties shall adopt or strengthen legislative or other measures…to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking.”

There are some who do not want to reduce demand for sexual exploitation, and myths and misinformation are spread about efforts to achieve it, so let me be absolutely clear: sexual exploitation is not a solution to poverty. Our continued tolerance of this harmful trade puts vulnerable women and girls at an ongoing risk from traffickers and pimps who seek to profit from it. Suggestions that criminalising paying for sex will only serve to drive sexual exploitation underground fundamentally misunderstand the nature of this trade. Sex buyers need to locate women to sexually exploit, and if sex buyers can find the women, so can the police and support services. As an analysis published by the European Commission points out,

“Sex markets are reliant, by definition, on buyers finding spaces and places where it is possible to pay for sex.”

The absolute necessity of deterring demand is why, at a recent international summit organised by UK Feminista to confront the rampant sexual exploitation of Romanian women by men in the UK, the president of the Romanian Women’s Lobby, Laura Albu, said:

“The solution is simple: end demand in the UK. The UK can end demand and prosecute buyers of sex and close this so-called market.”

We must heed her call. We have the power to bust the business model of sex trafficking. That is what my Bill would do, and the Government would do well to adopt it.

It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) because, as Members will know, she is indeed a close friend. I respect her and value her enormously, and it is only because our friendship is so strong that I feel able to stand here and speak against some aspects of her proposed Bill. I hope that, by doing so, we will begin a debate that informs rather than confuses and in which there are no binary sides, but just an honest and desperate attempt to talk about and try to resolve something that is still difficult in our society today.

I hope I do not need to spell out that we all oppose trafficking and exploitation. It is real, it is utterly horrifying, and it is rightly illegal. We absolutely need laws that target exploitation and abuse, and we need them to be better enforced. The part of my hon. Friend’s Bill that I cannot support involves putting into the law of England and Wales what is called the Nordic model. The Nordic model is not about tackling trafficking or exploitation directly. It criminalises the buying of sex, and it can also criminalise many of the means by which sex workers market their work. That is counterproductive and it will put women at greater risk.

In France, after the model was introduced in 2016, 42% of sex workers said that they had become more exposed to violence. Tragically, there is some evidence that murders of sex workers increased significantly. Between September 2019 and February 2020, at least nine sex workers were murdered, according to the French newspaper, Libération. When all clients are frightened of being arrested, and therefore insist that meetings happen in darker corners where the dangers for women are greater, sex workers cannot refuse those risks. They can no longer distinguish between clients who are a threat and those who are not.

I will give voice to some women who are involved in sex work. Jenny from Manchester said, “The harms to me come from the laws that they have. Having a record is a harm. There’s a major difficulty for women who want to exit prostitution. The services don’t address it. They can come up with the courses for you to go on, but they cannot take away the charges. You can’t get housing and there are jobs that aren’t available because of what you’ve done. Women who have sex work convictions often find it almost impossible to leave.” We must address that, because it limits life chances and makes women more vulnerable to the coercion of pimps and traffickers.

Reports on the implementation of the Nordic model have found that it has caused sex workers to be less likely to refuse risky clients as income has fallen. They are also less likely to report violence to the police. In France, 70% of sex workers said that relationships with the police had become worse or were unchanged, despite the Nordic model reforms decriminalising some aspects of their work. The Nordic model even made 38% of sex workers less likely to use condoms, because their power to refuse clients was reduced, which made it harder to insist on safe sex only. That is why criminalisation is opposed by the World Health Organisation, STOPAIDS and the Royal College of Nursing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North and others want to give women who are trapped in the sex trade a way out, and I share that goal. The Nordic model in France included an exit programme. Two years on, researchers found that only 39% of sex workers were even aware of it, and of those, only a quarter had any intention of applying. I do not believe that any individual programme will give most women a genuine alternative, because their circumstances are complex. Ultimately, as we know, it is poverty, inequality and the legacy of unjust laws that trap women in the situations we have been raising today, force them to do work that they do not want to do, and expose them to the risks of abuse, violence and exploitation.

The truth is, I believe, that sex work will be around for as long as there is poverty and inequality—and frankly, poverty and inequality are rife in our communities. Last year, before covid hit our communities, 2.4 million people were destitute in the UK, including more than half a million children. That is a rise of 54% in just two years since 2017. Those numbers will include many sex workers and their children.

There will also be sex workers who stay out of destitution only because of the income that their work brings in. Louise, who works in the sex trade in Doncaster, said, “The police don’t protect us, and the biggest problem I face is the laws. Some women have been dragged under the control of pimps, but criminalising everyone doesn’t help that. We are boxed in by poverty. Criminalising clients would take away our income when people around the country are living on the edge and women are expected to fill the gap.”

If the law prevents sex workers from finding clients online, what happens then? My hon. Friend has quoted despicable misogynistic comments about women posted online. None of us likes that. The comments create a society in which women are objectified, but shutting down the websites will push them underground, moving them to encrypted message apps or sites on the dark web instead, making it harder for sex workers to have a discussion with clients at a safe distance before agreeing to meet, and harder for sex worker groups such as National Ugly Mugs to monitor what clients are doing. These changes could unintentionally make it harder for women to identify the men who are a threat to them and to report clients who are violent and abusive.

I think we have to create policies so that women have the power to create the lives they want. In New Zealand, an emphasis has been put on reducing harm and ensuring that sex workers have access to their rights and to justice. These reforms enable sex workers to work together without fear of prosecution and thereby in greater safety. Coercion of people into sex work or to provide a share of the money received is, of course, illegal in New Zealand, and because sex work is treated as a normal form of work and taxed, all normal laws apply. In my view, the evidence from New Zealand is positive, with trust in the police improved, increased reporting of offences, better safety and health for sex workers, and, most importantly, an increased ability for sex workers to refuse clients.

I am not here today to recommend any particular changes to the law, although I am open to considering them. Whatever happens, I think we can agree that we need much stronger enforcement against trafficking, coercion, grooming, violence and harassment. We agree that women deserve protection, and we need to eliminate the barriers that prevent women from leaving sex work. That includes convictions for sex work offences, which can be an anvil around necks. I do not think that the Nordic model is the right one, but I do think that a debate about how we deal with sex work and workers needs to begin now in this place, in good faith and between friends.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Dame Diana Johnson, Ms Harriet Harman, Sarah Champion, Fiona Bruce, Carolyn Harris, Dame Margaret Hodge, Mrs Maria Miller, Rosie Duffield, Stella Creasy, Mr Virendra Sharma, Gavin Robinson and Derek Thomas present the Bill.

Dame Diana Johnson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 January 2021, and to be printed (Bill 228).

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you have heard from the Secretary of State for International Trade, who I believe is in Singapore at the moment, about whether she intends to come to the House and make a statement on the UK’s decision to opt out of tariffs imposed by the World Trade Organisation on the US. The article appeared in the Financial Times this morning rather than there being a statement to this House. This sends a terrible message to Airbus and the steel industry in north Wales, which have already been very hard hit by the covid crisis, and it undermines our relationship with our European partners. This Prime Minister promised to stand up for British jobs. He clearly did not mean it. This decision shows terrible weakness and the Government need to come to this House and explain themselves.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Of course, what Ministers say, wherever they say it, is not a matter for the Chair. But what is a matter for the Chair, as Mr Speaker has said many times, and I repeat now, is that if any Government Minister has an announcement to make that is of any importance whatsoever, it should not be made in the pages of newspapers; it should be made and must be made first here, in this Chamber, to this House. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I am quite sure that if the Secretary of State whom he mentioned does have an announcement to make, she will come here and make it in the appropriate manner.