SWOU Statement: Home affairs select committee recommends the decriminalisation of sex workers

Following its inquiry into prostitution law, today the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) released its report. We are pleased to say that, despite the extremely biased framing of the Committee’s terms of reference, it has nevertheless produced a carefully researched and well-reasoned report. Importantly, the HASC agrees with some of the key demands made by sex workers and our allies, recommending that “the Home Office change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and so that brothel-keeping provisions allow sex workers to share premises” and that legislation should  be drafted to provide for the “deletion of previous convictions and cautions for prostitution from the record of sex workers”.

The majority of the evidence heard before the HASC came either from advocates for criminalising the purchase of sex (also known as the Swedish or Nordic model) or for advocates of full decriminalisation (along the lines of New Zealand). Despite these differences, the Committee noted that there is clear consensus that the criminalisation of sex workers makes their work more dangerous, limits their access to vital services and potentially burdens them with criminal records. Importantly, the HASC has also concluded that the evidence base for the Swedish model is weak, that it “makes no attempt to discriminate between prostitution which occurs between two consenting adults, and that which involves exploitation” and that advocates for this model often sideline the voices of sex workers.

In short, the main conclusions of the HASC report represent a stunning victory for sex workers and our demands for decriminalisation. However, SWOU nevertheless wishes to voice some concerns regarding some points in the report’s recommendations.

Firstly, the report takes note of SWOU’s written evidence to the effect that most day-to-day criminal sanctions suffered by sex workers are essentially at police discretion (ASBOs, prostitute cautions, arrests, section 35 “dispersion orders” and simple harassment), but is not sufficiently explicit in stating that these forms of criminalisation must also be addressed by legislation. It particular, it should be established in law not only that soliciting is not a crime, but that it does not in itself constitute “anti-social behaviour”, “harassment” or a source of “alarm” or “distress” to the public.

Secondly, the HASC report states that any legislation should not remove the state’s “ability to prosecute those who use brothels to control or exploit sex workers.” Although SWOU, as a workers’ collective, is in agreement that brothel owners and other bosses often use their power to exploit and abuse sex workers, we believe that criminalising bosses is a simplistic response to a complex issue. In New Zealand, the decriminalisation of collective working has increased the proportion of sex workers working independently and it is to be hoped that the similar reform, as envisaged in the HASC report, would have a similar effect in England and Wales. Nevertheless, it is likely that a proportion of sex workers will continue to work for agencies, brothel managers or other employers for the foreseeable future. The continued criminalisation of these employers means that they are not accountable to health and safety regulations, labour law and other conditions of decent employment, which in turn harms workers. 

The work of the HASC and the Government to reform prostitution law will continue, and we hope that these concerns will be dealt with in due course, hopefully with extensive input from sex workers and sex worker led groups such as SWOU, English Collective of Prostitutes, SCOT-PEP and X:Talk  at every point. In any case, the publication of this report represents a giant step forward for sex workers’ rights in the UK.