MPs call for prostitution to be legalised, but demand tough new penalties on pimps

Scandinavian-style laws targeting customers proposed

Deputy Political Editor

Laws criminalising women working as prostitutes should be scrapped and replaced with tough new penalties targeting customers and pimps who fuel the multibillion-pound sex trade, a year-long parliamentary inquiry has concluded.

MPs and peers of all parties urge Britain to follow Scandinavian countries by aiming the full force of the law against punters, rather than women who might have been coerced into selling their bodies. The starting-point for legislation should be the premise that prostitution amounts to violence against women and is an affront to sexual equality, their report, published on Monday, claims.

It argues for the introduction of a new “general offence” banning the purchase of sexual services. At the same time, soliciting offences that are currently used to prosecute prostitutes should be removed from the statute book. The sale and purchase of sex is currently legal in Britain, but soliciting, pimping, running a brothel and kerb-crawling are illegal.

Their call comes days after the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly for new laws criminalising prostitutes’ clients. In the report, the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution delivers a damning verdict on the inadequacy of the UK’s prostitution laws, some of which date back to the 1950s.

It warns that legal loopholes enable men to evade prosecution for abusing girls as young as 13 and fail to protect women who have been trafficked into Britain against rape.

The group also claims that a lack of political will to tackle the issue has helped turn this country into a lucrative destination for criminal gangs involved in the sex trade.

The Labour MP Gavin Shuker, the group’s chair, said: “The current UK law is not working. It sends no clear signals about what we consider prostitution to be, in effect prioritising the gratification of punters at the expense of often vulnerable women and girls.”

It concluded that current legislation was “complicated and confusing”, with sex workers, rather than punters, often receiving the fines, antisocial behaviour orders and criminal records.

Sweden made the purchase of sex illegal in 1999 and has been followed by Norway and Iceland, while Denmark and France are also debating whether to follow suit. But critics of the move suggest it could drive prostitution further underground, making it more difficult to rescue women who wanted to escape the sex trade.

Last week’s European Parliament vote was passed by a majority of 343 to 139. Mary Honeyball, the Labour MEP who put forward the resolution, said it would target “men who treat women’s bodies as a commodity without criminalising women who are driven into sex work”.

In 2004, the Labour government proposed the creation of tightly controlled “red light districts” to get vulnerable women off the streets, but dropped the idea in the face of widespread opposition.

Instead it brought in an offence criminalising men who pay for sex with women forced into prostitution, a measure that has been criticised for being ineffectual.

Monday’s report recommends the law be toughened against men who have sex with a prostitute aged under 18. As long as the girl is aged 13 or over, the customer can currently escape a charge of child prostitution if he can argue he believed the girl was aged 18.

Norman Baker, the crime prevention minister, said: “We believe that those who want to leave prostitution should be given every opportunity to find routes out. We will ensure that legislation surrounding prostitution remains effective and continue to work with law enforcement agencies to achieve this.”

Around the World: Prostitution and the law

Sweden Pioneered legislation criminalising the purchase, but not sale, of sex in 1999. Supporters claim this has reduced demand for prostitution and the number of sex workers.

Germany Legalised in 2002, creating an industry thought to employ 400,000 prostitutes and to be worth £13 billion a year.

The Netherlands Legalised in 2000 and Amsterdam is considered to be an international centre of the sex trade. Prostitutes became liable for taxes three years ago.

France Not illegal to buy or sell sex, although pimping and operating a brothel are prohibited. Parliament debating new laws to criminalise buying sex, with fines of at least €1,500 (£1,240).

Italy Street prostitution and single sex workers operating from apartments are legal, but brothels and pimping are banned.

United States Illegal (except in parts of Nevada which permit regulated brothels). However, it has been estimated that the American sex trade is worth about £8 billion and employs hundreds of thousands of people.

Australia Legal and regulated in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. In other states, running brothels remains illegal.

Case study: 'The Nordic model has failed'

Gemma, 24, from south-east London, is strongly opposed to the introduction of a new Scandinavian-style criminal offence banning the purchase of sexual services, saying it would push the trade further underground. 

I started doing sex work about four years ago when I began work as a stripper. I went on to work in massage parlours and about a year ago I went independent, working from my home.

The Nordic model is a failed piece of legislation that has not worked and is not reducing the amount of sex work taking place. It is harmful and does not protect sex workers or keep them safe.

If I decided I was too nervous to work alone, I would not be allowed to have a friend over to work in a pair for safety: it would technically mean I was running a brothel.

What sex workers want is the removal of sanctions around sex work, like in New Zealand. Sex workers want decriminalisation; they do not want legalisation.

Legalisation means the regulation of sex work. It punishes those vulnerable women who are not able to jump through the necessary hoops, for example refugees and mothers. It’s a backdoor process of criminalisation.

Decriminalisation is the removal of the laws that penalise sex workers and clients. Decriminalisation would make women safer. If decriminalisation happens it would not mean removal of laws to protect women from trafficking, exploitation and rape.

When a client is made to be a criminal, he isn’t going to call the police to report suspected people trafficking. It is just driving it underground. This proposal would just create a blacker market than there already is.”

Gemma (not her real name) was speaking to Katie Grant

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

h2 Recruit Ltd: Inside Sales Manager - Accountancy Software - £80,000 OTE

£50000 - £60000 per annum + £80,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Reading , Sou...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - BIM Software - £55,000 OTE

£40000 per annum + OTE £55,000 +Pension : h2 Recruit Ltd: An excellent opportu...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Commodities Brokers / Sales / Closers / Telesales

£10000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Investment consultancy firm sp...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer is recr...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital