To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking in response to the report of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee on Prostitution (Third Report, Session 2016–17, HC 26); and in particular, the recommendations on (1) decriminalising soliciting; and (2) amending brothel-keeping laws to allow independent sex workers to operate together indoors for safety.
My Lords, following the committee’s report, the Government commissioned research on the prevalence and nature of sex work. This did not lend itself to clear recommendations on a new approach. We continue to engage with the police and others, with a focus on reducing the harm that can be associated with prostitution. We know there are links between brothels and organised criminal gangs and have no plans to amend legislation in this area.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. I note that the Independent reported in December that the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead on prostitution and sex work said he was working alongside the Government to reassess the brothel-keeping legislation particularly. His words were
“I don’t think that is helpful.”
This occurs, of course, in the context of the cost of living crisis. To quote a sex worker from Leeds:
“We’re in the middle of a cost of living crisis, and although sex work is legal there aren’t any regulations and safe places for people to work legally, and the wages haven’t gone up at all. Survivalist sex work is a massive issue”.
In December, the talk was of action.
If you will let me. The talk in December was of action. Are the Government going to urgently look at this question, particularly in light of the cost of living crisis?
The noble Baroness is quite right. The DCC and the Safeguarding Minister had an introductory conversation at the end of January in which they discussed all those issues. The Safeguarding Minister highlighted that the Government are not minded at present to seek to change the law, based partly on a lack of unequivocal evidence. On the cost of living crisis, we are obviously extremely concerned to hear of women who feel they have no other choice but to turn to sex for survival. We are committed to ensuring that no one finds themselves in this position.
My Lords, after the committee’s report, we commissioned some research by the University of Bristol in association with the police and crime commissioner for south Wales. I am afraid that report did not deliver any unequivocal evidence, as I have just said. The evidence from other jurisdictions where a different approach is tried is also not unequivocal so, for the moment, things are going to stay the way they are.
My Lords, I am looking forward to the day when sex workers pay their fair share of tax—unlike some I might mention. Those tax revenues would be more secure if they could work safely with simple, practical measures like two sex workers working together without risk of prosecution for pimping each other out. Successive Governments have turned deaf ears to the plight of sex workers, while the men who exploit and abuse them get away scot free. Is there any chance this Government will behave any differently?
My Lords, the National Police Chiefs’ Council updated its guidance in 2019. It is important to note that that guidance prioritises safety over enforcement action in terms of the criminalisation of these practices. It is incredibly important that this guidance is followed because it advises forces to focus on how to make those involved in sex work safe and to conduct risk assessments before enforcing brothel-keeping legislation. As to tax, I am not going to comment.
I look forward to the day when we do not have sex workers. What is the Government’s attitude on working towards getting rid of the reason why people are driven into sex work, which is nearly always the slavery of poverty?
My Lords, it is fair to say that it is the oldest profession, so I suspect that we will never get rid of it entirely, which is of course regrettable. In terms of poverty, our strategy—with all the things that are being done at the moment to alleviate that—is fairly clear.
Some 25 years ago, I co- chaired the Women’s National Commission as the government co-chair, in which over 100 women’s organisations were represented. As I am sure my noble friend the Minister knows, this is not a new problem, whatever the state of the economy. Among those over-100 women’s organisations, there was everything from Army wives to the English Collective of Prostitutes, so I feel that I have a little insight into some of their problems. One of the biggest difficulties for any Government wanting to make changes here—and I do support such changes—is finding the right premises, because, to put it bluntly, nobody wants one next door. If my noble friend is serious about making some progress on this, does he agree that the Government should address that problem?
My noble friend is quite right. However, this is an evolving problem, and there are a number of practices that take place now that would not have happened when she was involved in this subject herself, including online activities and so on. Again, I do not think that it is appropriate for me to comment on housing, but I understand where she is coming from on that subject.
My Lords, my noble friend the Minister referred to online activities, and, indeed, most sexual services in the UK are now facilitated, advertised and negotiated online. These websites have been identified as a space where offenders and human traffickers can coerce and force individuals into selling sexual services. Are the Government taking any action on the role adult websites are playing in human trafficking and sexual exploitation?
My noble friend is right to bring up the subject of adult services websites. We recognise that criminals can and do use prostitution and sex work to target and exploit vulnerable people for their own commercial gain. Adult services websites are the most significant enabler of sexual exploitation linked to trafficking, so we are developing, across adult services agencies, a websites approach and we are investing additional resources to support the police. It is important to come back to an earlier question: we are also tackling demand by targeting users of adult services websites to raise awareness of sexual exploitation on those sites through the use of things such as Google ads.
My Lords, carrying on from the last question, the police on one occasion took me around north London for an evening and, as we were leaving, they pointed out a considerable number of brothels in the Tottenham area, in which, they said, the people were almost all trafficked women. This is a very serious matter, and if there are to be premises for women—and sometimes for men—to work, does the Minister agree that we must bear in mind that a great many of them have been trafficked?
I think that the noble and learned Baroness is absolutely right; it is something we need to be aware of. Again, a lot of this comes down to reducing demand for sexual services. It is worth point out that the improved guidance has highlighted that Section 53A of the Sexual Offences Act makes it illegal to pay for the sexual services of a prostitute subjected to
“force, threats … or any other form of coercion, or … deception.”
That is a strict liability offence, meaning that it is not a valid defence that the defendant did not know that the prostitute had been subject to force or coercion. That should probably be more widely known.
My Lords, the Minister has already mentioned the Government’s own report from the University of Bristol published in 2019, which said that “a substantial proportion” of women engaging in sex work did so for financial reasons, with the decision often influenced by
“caring responsibilities, … lack of access to … benefits and support services”, and lack of access to health services. From the Minister’s responses to previous questions, it is clear that, since 2019, the Government have not done anything—or have they? If so, can he tell us what it is?
My Lords, as I tried to explain earlier, part of the problem is that the gathering of evidence to support any particular course of action is proving very difficult. The 2019 review conducted by the University of Bristol had the strengthening of the evidence base as one of its remits, which was one of the Select Committee’s recommendations. But the nature of prostitution makes it very difficult to estimate the prevalence accurately, and the research was unable to identify a single estimate. The nature of this work is evolving and changes completely, and has done over time.
The noble Baroness will be aware that there is also a different legislative approach across the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, where all buying of sex has been criminalised and the selling decriminalised. However, to go back to an earlier point, I am afraid that we have yet to see unequivocal evidence that any one approach is better at tackling harm and exploitation, and that remains our priority. We will continue to monitor the implementation and impact of the changes in Northern Ireland, but as yet there is insufficient evidence.
My Lords, soliciting in public by a woman for sexual purposes is illegal. Has any progress been made on criminalising the men who approach the women, who are also soliciting?
My Lords, no doubt the Minister is aware that the majority of women who are trafficked are trafficked into the sex trade. He has made reference to the Northern Ireland position; I steered a Private Member’s Bill through the Northern Ireland Assembly on this very subject. Would he be prepared to consider what has happened in Northern Ireland, which endeavours to give much more—if not complete—protection to women who are trafficked into the sex trade?
As I intimated earlier, we will continue to monitor the situation in Northern Ireland closely, as well as the other international models such as the Nordic and New Zealand ones, so that work will not stop.