Hundreds of thousands of men who buy sex risk acquiring a criminal record under plans set out today to clamp down on prostitution.
It will become illegal to use prostitutes who have been trafficked into the country or who work for pimps or drug traffickers. Ignorance of the new law, or of a woman's circumstances, will be no defence.
An estimated 100,000 men pay for sex in Britain every year, the vast majority of whom will be targeted by legislation being announced today by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. At least 80,000 women work in the vice trade – most foreign nationals – and the numbers are thought to be growing.
After years of agonising over how to control the illegal industry, Ms Smith will conclude that tough action is required against those who pay for sex. It will become an offence to buy sex from anyone "controlled for another person's gain". Only women who work for themselves will not be covered, and men who knowingly use a prostitute who has been trafficked could be prosecuted for rape.
The proposals fall short of the total ban on buying sex demanded by some campaigners, but the Government believes they cover up to 90 per cent of occasions when men visit prostitutes. Ministers say the measure, backed by the police, will be a powerful deterrent. The new offence, which will carry a large fine and a criminal record, is expected to be announced in the Queen's Speech on 3 December.
But critics warn it could drive women underground, making them even more vulnerable. They could also put themselves at risk by being forced to work alone rather than in brothels.
A spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes said: "These plans are not going to make any women's lives safer and will increase the criminalisation and stigma of those working in the sex industry."
Fiona Mactaggart, a former Home Office minister, said the proposals did not go far enough. She told the BBC: "Finland has a similar arrangement where men who pay for sex with prostitutes commit an offence if the woman is trafficked and it hasn't had any prosecutions under it."
Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: " "Any system which cuts out pimps would be welcome, but the difficulty is always in the drafting and application. The Finnish system has not had a great track record."
Dominic Grieve, shadow Home Secretary, said: "The Government's proposals won't protect the most vulnerable – they need to properly enforce the laws we already have."