Harriet Harman was accused of stepping up a "witch-hunt" against sex workers yesterday after she called on members of the Women's Institute to monitor the small ads in local newspapers – and report those they believe are advertising the services of people trafficked and forced into prostitution.
The Women's minister urged a gathering of WI members in London to write to editors if they were suspicious. "Look at the adverts in your local newspaper," Ms Harman said. "They advertise women for sale for sex. Many are young women from eastern Europe, from Africa or Asia, tricked and trafficked into this country and forced into prostitution."
But the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) accused Ms Harman of jeopardising the safety of sex workers by forcing them out of relatively safe premises and on to the street, where they were 10 times more likely to be attacked. Cari Mitchell said the minister was embarking on a "moral crusade" and disputed claims that up to 70 per cent of women in prostitution have been trafficked.
She said while many ads promised to supply women from overseas there was no evidence to suggest these had been trafficked or that they were actually foreign. "When premises are raided very few 'sex slaves' are found," she said. "Those who are, are deported rather than helped."
Calling for decriminalisation on the New Zealand model, Ms Mitchell said the public suffered from serious misconceptions about the sex industry. "Most brothels are discreetly run by two or three women, sometimes with a receptionist, or one woman, usually an ex-sex worker who employs two or three others. Many women prefer such brothels because they offer greater safety, companionship and lower expenses." Many relied on the cheapest possible advertising, she said.
The latest spat between the sex workers' organisation and what they denounce as a cabal of "feminist extremists" inside the Government follows the announcement last week that it would become an offence to buy sex from someone "controlled for another person's gain" – an attempt to focus attention on demand for prostitutes.
Ms Harman has enlisted a formidable ally in her battle to stamp out sex trafficking, which she has called the "new slave trade". The WI has written to its 70 federations, representing 205,000 women, urging them to begin monitoring as part of a long campaign against violence towards women.
Isla Arendell, a senior member, said: "If our members find the adverts, we ask them to write to the paper and report back to us. We want our members to raise awareness of the damage carrying these adverts can have on the lives of trafficked women and girls."
The WI came close to debating a motion at its AGM earlier this year which could have seen it backing the decriminalisation of brothels in the UK – a position vehemently opposed by Ms Harman. A motion put forward by the Hampshire Federation – backed by South Devon – was rejected before it could be debated. It had commissioned a report into the sex industry following the murder of five prostitutes around Ipswich, Suffolk, by Steven Wright in 2006. An extraordinary expedition by WI members saw them tour the world's leading vice spots.
Ms Harman yesterday gave the House of Commons examples of the "sleazy" trade which saw women sold alongside ads for skip hire and lost pets. Examples included: "New Thai girls, choice of two available, satisfaction always, near junction 11 M4, parking available." Or "Brazilian girls Barkingside, £60 full service," she told MPs.
The Institute in action: 'The ads are degrading'
* Sue Atkinson, Cambridge Women's Institute: "It is women doing something for other women and that is what the Women's Institute has always been about. Where are these women coming from? We hear so much about women being trafficked into this country, one wonders if the women being advertised are some of those women – whether they have been forced into the job and who is benefiting? Some pimp somewhere is probably getting a lot of money from something they don't want to do."
* Selina Prescott, Cheshire Women's Institute: "We have had a look at it and chatted about it this morning. Chester is a very big county and very diverse and we each said we would look as requested and see what is there and exactly what we come across. We have looked at two newspapers so far from the Chester area and we haven't come across any that are suspect."
* Elly Challoner, Brixham Women's Institute: "Women should have the freedom to choose the life they wish. I don't like these adverts for these women who offer these horrible services – it is utterly degrading – and a lot of decent women would say the same thing. But my personal opinion is that I am all for decriminalising prostitution rather than all this undercover stuff so we can treat drug dependence and check for venereal disease."