I noticed one of my local papers reporting that the MP for Luton South was to lead an “inquiry into whether the law on prostitution should be changed”: ‘Gavin Shuker MP leading inquiry into sex trade laws‘.
I was intrigued.
This is a very worthy, if somewhat tricky, subject to tackle. The law needs to protect, often very vulnerable, people from exploitation so to question whether the current legal situation could be improved to do this better is surely worthwhile. Yet this is not an easy issue for politics to deal with. Society at large seems to have a complicated and often hypocritical attitude to prostitution. It is an area surrounded by myths and taboos — where doing the “right” thing in straightforward policy terms can be easily confused by the messy reality. So any member of parliament interested in social reform who chooses this subject as something to tackle, provided they do so with a practical attitude and an open mind, should be applauded.
Yet, I immediately had some concerns. Knowing the position that Gavin Shuker has taken on some other social issues I wondered how open minded and practical he would be. A brief internet search confirmed my suspicions. Things are not quite what they appear to be with this “inquiry”.
The inquiry is being undertaken by the ‘All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade’, which Shuker is the Chair of. A “call for evidence” that the group has made closed at the beginning of this month.
The purpose of this APPG as stated on their (rather sketchy) website is:
“to raise awareness of the impact of the sale of sexual services on those involved and to develop proposals for government action to tackle individuals who create demand for sexual services as well as those who control prostitutes; to protect prostituted women by helping them to exit prostitution and to prevent girls from entering prostitution.” (My emphasis)
The Group’s entry in the House of Common’s Register of All-Party Groups states that the secretariat for the Group is provided by CARE (Christian Action Research and Education). CARE’s stated policy towards prostitution — according to their ‘tackling demand’ briefing [PDF] — includes the following:
“CARE recommends that the Government adopt legislation which criminalises the buying of sexual services whilst taking a more compassionate approach to those selling these services.”
Incidentally, CARE are also strongly opposed to the coalition government’s current legislation to achieve equal marriage.
Gavin Shuker himself already seems to have formed some pretty firm views on this issue. In an article in The Guardian in December he is quoted as saying:
“It is clear that the current legal situation is failing women and it is failing communities, and the government needs to consider if the criminalisation of buying sex could help reduce demand.”
I also found this report of a speech he gave to the AGM of a Norfolk charity where he apparently “gave a stirring speech encouraging the gathering to actively fight for a law change to criminalise the purchasing of sex”. I like politicians with a passionate commitment to their beliefs, even if I don’t share them, so I thought it was worth repeating what Shuker is quoted as saying to that meeting:
“One of the biggest lies that is perpetuated, is that it [prostitution] is the oldest profession and for that reason it is always with us and there is nothing you can do. I just fundamentally don’t believe that is true.
“I think we should be angry. I think we should be angry that it’s okay to go out and exploit women in this way. And I think that we should be angry enough to force us into action, to force the people around us to take action, to say that it’s unjust.”
(As an aside the Christian charity he was speaking to was the The Magdalene Group an organisation that does outreach work amongst street prostitutes in Norwich which — on my brief reading of their website — looks to be a very valuable organisation.)
I hope you can see the pattern that is developing here.
CARE, Shuker and the APPG clearly believe that one way to tackle the social problems associated with prostitution is to make the buying of sex itself illegal. Under the current law in England and Wales, soliciting sex and kerb crawling, as well as selling sex in a brothel, are illegal — but the act of paying for sex is not. The argument is that this change in the law would lead to a fall in demand for prostitution. The highlighting of this approach at Westminster follows changes to the law to this effect in a number of Scandinavian countries and recent moves in this direction in Scotland.
Aside from the questions around individual liberty that such a move would create, I am far from convinced that this a workable approach. I am very dubious about the idea that you can legislate away demand for something. Experience across a whole range of social problems suggests that prohibition rarely is successful and often actually makes problems worse. There are many arguments that suggest that this would also be the case with prostitution.
However, I began this post by saying how this was a tricky area to develop policy in. While there are experts and campaigners who argue for prohibition, there are others who will argue for the status quo, for decriminalisation, and for legalisation. I don’t claim to know what reforms to the law are needed — and Shuker is perfectly entitled to take a prohibitionist line. What I do object to is his cloaking his campaigning for a particular outcome in the neutral clothes of a parliamentary inquiry.
I said at the beginning that any member of parliament interested in social reform who chooses this subject as something to tackle, provided they do so with practical attitude and an open mind, should be applauded. Effective all party parliamentary groups can cut across the usual political divides and through investigation and discussion help to build a consensus around reform on a particular issue. Yet it is clear that Shuker and his APPG have already made up their minds. This APPG is less an attempt to gather together parliamentarians with an interest in the issue of prostitution, whatever their views, and more a campaign group with a fixed agenda.
Note also the rather gendered approach of the APPG. Their aim is to “protect prostituted women….and to prevent girls from entering prostitution”. It obviously hasn’t occurred to them that some men may be open to exploitation or that vulnerable boys may need protection.
If this APPG already has a fixed approach to this issue — why have an inquiry?
If you look at the document they have issued in their call for written evidence you will get an idea:
The text includes a “background summary of different legal settlements on prostitution” which argues against the options of regulation, decriminalisation, and legalisation — but paints prohibition in a favourable light. This is then followed by a very short questionnaire.
It all feels like something designed to get responses favourable to their argument. I think this is a classic attempt to find “policy based evidence” and not a genuine process of evidence based policy making.
What we seem to have here is not a rational approach to reviewing and reforming the laws around prostitution — looking at all the evidence and expert opinion from across the spectrum — but more something in the nature of a moral crusade. With such a tricky and sensitive issue as prostitution such an approach is likely to end up causing more harm than good.