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Decriminalise selling sex: British MPs

world Updated: Jul 04, 2016 21:42 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Sex workers

File photo of British MP Keith Vaz, who chaired the parliamentary committee that has called for change in legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence. (Getty Images)

Amid evidence that students sell sex to pay their way through university, an influential parliamentary committee has called for change in British legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and brothel-keeping laws allow sex workers to share premises.

In a first-of-its-kind inquiry titled “Prostitution”, the Home Affairs Select Committee said it was “dismayed“ by poor data on Britain’s sex industry, whereas its inquiries revealed such facts as sex workers having an average of 25 clients a week paying an average £78 per visit.

Presenting an interim report on the subject, Keith Vaz, the chair of the committee, said: “Treating soliciting as a criminal offence is having an adverse effect, and it is wrong that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be penalised and stigmatised in this way. The criminalisation of sex workers should therefore end.” 

According to the committee, nearly 11% of British men aged 16 to 74 have paid for sex on at least one occasion, which equates to 2.3 million individuals. The number of sex workers in Britain is estimated to be around 72,800, with about 32,000 working in London.

In England and Wales, the sale and purchase of sexual services is legal, but various related activities are criminal, including activities linked to exploitation, such as controlling prostitution, or managing a brothel, and activities that can present a public nuisance, such as buying or selling sex in public.

In a submission to the committee, the National Union of Students (NUS) cited research led by Swansea University into student sex work which found that almost 5% of students in the study had engaged in sex work at some time.

The NUS explained: “Financial hardship is a principal motivating factor for students to pick up work in the sex industry. Continued efforts need to be made to locate those students who do not succeed in getting the financial support that they need within the existing administrative protocols.”

In 2014–15, there were 456 prosecutions of sex workers for loitering and soliciting. An estimated 152 sex workers were murdered between 1990 and 2015. There were 1,139 victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation in 2014, and 248 in April to June 2015 (following implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015).

Vaz added: “The current law on brothel keeping also means sex-workers can be too afraid of prosecution to work together at the same premises, which can often compromise their safety.

“The committee will evaluate a number of the alternative models as this inquiry continues, including the sex-buyers law as operated in Sweden, the full decriminalised model used in Denmark, and the legalised model used in Germany and the Netherlands."

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