Next week, on Report stage of the Policing and Crime Bill, the House will return to the provisions relating to prostitution. What is now Clause 14 (it was previously Clause 13) seeks to protect vulnerable and exploited women through making it an offence to pay for sex with someone who is subjected by a third party to force, threat or any form of coercion. The offence is a strict liability offence: in other words, it will not be a defence to say that you did not know that the person was forced to engage in prostitution.
The Bill itself can be read here. The provisions were debated in committee and there were some serious concerns raised about the clause. Baroness Hanham feared that it may mean that the Government was not planning a serious review of the issue. The problem, she argued, should be addressed by enforcing existing laws, not least in tackling the issue of trafficking. Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Dormer suggested the Government look at New Zealand’s decriminalisation of prostitution. Baroness Butler-Sloss, a former senior judge, worried that the clause may result in clients not being willing to go to the police when they felt that the women were being abused.
Lord Desai also developed the point that the clause may have unintended consequences:
“The clause implies that almost everyone supplying sexual services is somehow forced into it by the traffickers. It is essential to understand that there are women who provide sexual services either voluntarily, because of various circumstances which I do not have time to go into, or because they are trafficked. If you confuse the two and reduce demand, you are as likely to drive away the women who are voluntarily there and you will not do much to reduce trafficking. All that will happen if the price falls is that more ruthless and efficient suppliers will drive away the voluntary, one-person or two-person providers. You might therefore be just as likely to strengthen the traffickers. These sorts of perverse effects—or unintended consequences, as the noble Baroness pointed to in another context—are well known in economics.”
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has also raised concerns about the provisions. It too felt that they “run the real risk of making those engaged in prostitution even more vulnerable”.
What do readers think? Should we change the law to tackle the issue of prostitution? If so, is Clause 14 the way to go? Or should we have a more extensive review of the problem, perhaps even contemplating going down the route taken by New Zealand? Or should we be contemplating some other measures?