BBC World Service interview

Labour Party

Last week I was invited onto the panel of the BBC World Service programme World Have Your Say. We discussed new legislation passed in the French Parliament just the previous day which criminalises paying for sex. In other words the responsibility for the act rests with the purchaser rather than the seller of sex-what is more commonly known as the Nordic model of prostitution.

A number of guests were invited to contribute from all areas of the world and I explained why I welcome what’s happened in France. We can use evidence from Sweden, the first country in Europe to criminalise the buyer, and since then statistics show that street prostitution has declined by 11%.

Relations with police in Sweden are reportedly very good, safety of prostitutes is a priority and there is a high level of protection as a result. There are also exit programmes in place for those seeking to leave prostitution, which the legislation in France will also include.
The discussion on Friday included views from across the world where there protection of prostitutes varies hugely from country to country. However, one area all sides couldn’t agree on was the issue of rates of trafficking.

The European Union has carried out a lot of research in the area of trafficking, and official statistics from the EU state that approximately 85% of prostitutes are victims of trafficking. However, the reality is that we do not yet know the true extent of trafficking or how far and wide it reaches. These are some for the most vulnerable women and they do need to be protected by all those who can and should be helping them.

You can listen to my interview here. It’s in two parts, just follow each of the links.


Going Swedish – my article for Progress

Labour Party

On Saturday I wrote an article for Progress Online for International Women’s Day. You can read the article below, or go to the original post by clicking here.

International Women’s Day this year came on the heels of a big few months in the battle to end the ‘oldest profession’. France, Ireland and Northern Ireland have made moves towards changing their prostitution laws in the last year. All three are looking to shift towards the Swedish model, whereby it is the buyer (invariably the man) who is criminalised, with the sale of sex made legal.

Moreover, Germany has appeared for the first time to be willing to re-evaluate legalisation, and the British parliament, which has traditionally had a muddled position, has shown signs of going Swedish. An all-party group on the subject, chaired by Gavin Shuker MP, concluded that current laws ‘prioritise the gratification of punters at the expense of often-vulnerable women and girls’. The current law fails to address the problem of demand, and as a result it sustains the status quo.

The process has been helped along by my own report, recommending the Swedish model, which was passed by the European parliament in February. With countries as far away as Canada weighing up the merits of the Swedish model, it appears a genuine international shift is taking place. At long last governments are taking sustainable and ambitious steps.

For me this process is essential in the effort to bring about a world where women have a genuinely fair crack. With the sex trade overwhelmingly populated by women, the existence of prostitution is an affront to the battle for gender parity. It is a totemic issue; a persistent and uneasy monument of the economic and physical dominance of women by men. As a delegation of nearly 80 academics wrote in an open letter to members of the European parliaments last month:

The prostitution system is a reminder of continuing inequalities between women and men: the gender pay gap; the sexualisation of female bodies in popular culture; the histories of violence and abuse in both childhood and adulthood that underpin many women’s entry into the sex industry.

The alternative to the Swedish model is blanket decriminalisation. This has a degree of support – including from some sex workers’ groups – as a means of regulating the sex industry better. Advocates say it would prevent prostitution being ‘driven underground’ and therefore make it safer.

This claim is undermined somewhat by the case of Germany, perhaps the most controversial example of decriminalisation. Since legalisation there in 2001 there has been an explosion in prostitution levels. So-called ‘super brothels’ now operate on the country’s borders and there are reportedly around 400,000 sex workers (compared to less than 50,000 in neighbouring France). Just 44 of these have registered for benefits, suggesting the supposed ‘regulation’ of the industry is something of a myth. The effect has been simply to ingrain prostitution and normalise the inequalities which sustain it.

I hope that by International Women’s Day 2015 the number of countries to have ‘gone Swedish’ will have increased, and we will be approaching the point of critical mass where the Swedish model can become accepted as the norm. To protect women everywhere we must go beyond sticking plaster solutions and look to root causes.

Speaking on Woman’s Hour about growing support for the Swedish Model

Labour Party

Yesterday I appeared on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to discuss the new laws on prostitution currently being passed in France.

It was great to be on the programme again – you can listen to the interview here:

Francois Hollande’s socialist government are moving towards adoption of the Swedish Model, and this week announced fines of as much as €3,750 for prostitute use. The aim of the bill, which is being pushed through by Moroccan-born women’s minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, is to shift emphasis away from those selling sex and onto consumers.

The full proposal, which includes provisions for a €20m fund to help those who want to leave prostitution, will be voted on in the Assemblée Nationale later this week. It will then go to the upper house of the French parliament, the Sénat, for approval.

France is a perfect example of why we need better joined up thought on this issue. Prostituted women in the country are now 90% foreign – up from 20% in 1990 – with most coming from Eastern Europe and China. Human trafficking convictions have gone up by 30% there in the last three years, and there are accounts of sex tourism too, with some French men now crossing the border to liberalised Germany to make us of new ‘mega-brothels’. The situation in France shows that prostitution is a problem which has become globalised – and which now needs more internationally focussed solutions and greater consensus.

For that reason I am delighted to be taking my own report, calling for the Swedish Model, to the Women’s Rights and Gender equality Committee today.

Last month I discussed this with Radio Nantes – you can watch this by clicking here.

The committee will vote on it in January, with the aim of taking it to the plenary stage in February. If my proposals go through then it will add to pressure on domestic governments to adopt more nuanced policies towards tackling the sex trade, so that we can move beyond the blanket ‘Prohibitive vs. Permissive’ binary.

Norway and Iceland – two countries with world-class gender equality records – both adopted the Swedish Model some time ago. It looks as though France will now follow them. As I have said before, my hope is that, if the European Parliament as a whole approves the Nordic Model when we vote on it next year, then we can build on this momentum and see an overall shift of the centre of gravity across Europe. Member States will not be bound to implement the Swedish Model if they do not want to. But as other countries adopt it – and it receives EU approval – they will be more likely to examine whether their own systems are working.

For me this illustrates what the EU does best. In spite of what the Daily Express would have people believe, we are not a clunky regulator but a means of building international consensus and learning from each other, so as to overcome global challenges.

International consensus is the only solution to the horrors of the sex trade

Labour Party

This is an extract from a longer piece for Policy Review. Click here to read it in full.

Prostitution is an outrage which takes place on a global scale. Like many of the international challenges we now face, the sex industry transcends jurisdictions and spills across borders. As recently as September a police raid on an Ilford brothel revealed a house of Asian women, brought to the UK and made to work against their will.

Trafficking and ‘sex tourism’ mean that, at both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ ends, unilateral solutions are no longer enough. We need cross-border consensus if we are to achieve anything.

I believe the EU must set the direction of travel. Globalised crime networks and legal disparities between countries mean that, for example, Romanian prostitutes can now be transported en masse to London – or that British men can go on sex ‘holidays’ to Amsterdam. These problems will only be solved by a pan-European approach.

At present policies vary hugely from one country to another. In the UK we have blanket criminalisation. Prostitution is effectively illegal for both women providing services and men using them. This doesn’t address the core problem, and sometimes perpetuates it; prostitutes are convicted, criminalised and deprived of a route out, and thus return to the streets. As a result the UK system creates a subterranean economy, which is demeaning at best and dangerous at worst.

Holland and Germany’s ‘hands off’ approaches are no better. The Netherlands has become the top European destination for trafficking since decriminalisation, and Germany has seen steep increases in prostitution levels. The Mayor of Amsterdam has admitted it is “impossible” to create a “safe zone not open for abuse by organised crime”, and international women’s charity Equality Now say Holland’s system is “a failed experiment” which has “empowered buyers, pimps and traffickers”.

Moreover, neither the UK system nor the Dutch Model acknowledges the inequality which takes place when a man pays a woman for sex. Despite the fact that 96% of sex trafficking victims are female – and that 89% of prostitutes say they would escape the industry if they could – both systems effectively collude with the idea that women ‘choose’ to sell their bodies.

Later this year I will be reporting to my colleagues on the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee on how we can address prostitution across Europe. I favour the Nordic Model, which permits selling sex but criminalises buying it. The approach was introduced in Sweden in 1999. It has halved street prostitution there and caused a marked reduction in trafficking. There is evidence, too, of a knock-on effect for social attitudes, with Swedish men now three times as likely to oppose paying for sex. Experts who have seen it up close say it has also increased trust between police and prostitutes.

For me the Nordic Model represents the ideal compromise – a middle way, which is neither overly judgemental of women forced into the sex trade, nor laissez-faire when it comes to dealing with the men who exploit them. Unlike the alternatives it makes a distinction between buyers of sellers of sex, and I believe it is the only solution which brings real gender parity.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

This week saw Football Association board member Heather Rabbatts – along with the government’s Sports and Equalities Minister Helen Grant – speak out against the lack of diversity on the new commission into the future of the English football team. The body was initially made up of eight members chosen to rejuvenate the national side. It was all-white and all-male, with an average age of 57.

Rabbatts, the only female or non-white person currently on the FA board, questioned the selection process for the new commission at the weekend. She described it as “particularly ironic”, given the number of black players in the England set-up, that there is “absolutely no representation from…ethnic minority communities”.

The FA have previously been criticised for their handling of the John Terry and Luis Suarez racial abuse cases, and yesterday anti-racism organisations – including Kick It Out and Football Against Racism in Europe – questioned the selection process for the new body.

FA Chairman Greg Dyke pointed out on Sunday that steps had been taken to find ethnic minority representation (albeit without success), and then, at the eleventh hour, it was announced that Manchester United’s mixed-race defender Rio Ferdinand would join the panel.

Given how important promoting diversity will be to the new commission’s work, the initial lack of black faces does look like an oversight. It is also worrying that Rabbatts – a talented women who has helped modernise Millwall FC as well as several local authorities – had to go public to get her voice heard.

Much of the current debate around diversity at the top focuses on business and politics, but we must not ignore sport and the arts. The FA, in particular, is an organisation often accused of being out of touch with the increasingly fast-moving and globalised sport which it governs. To shake of its ‘gaffe prone’, blazer-clad image, a commitment to diversity is vital – not for cosmetic reasons, but to make it more effective as an organisation.

Earlier in the week, meanwhile, Theresa May used international Anti-Slavery Day, which took place on Friday, to announce her forthcoming Modern Slavery Bill. In order to send out the “strongest possible message” that the UK will not tolerate slavery, she said the bill will include a maximum life sentence for trafficking. The UK currently has around 4,600 enslaved people according to Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index, and a recent report suggests big increases in trafficking from Albania, Lithuania and Poland.

There were suggestions from some that May’s proposals overlook victims. Klara Skrivankova, from the charity Anti-Slavery International, said “Unless the protection of victims is put on a statutory footing, we’re unlikely to see more prosecutions”, and David Hanson MP, Labour’s shadow immigration minister, pointed out that 60% of the UK’s trafficked children go missing after being identified by authorities.

Walk Free also say that the UK’s vulnerability to trafficking is exacerbated by the “incredibly precarious living situation” our asylum system creates for refugees, and others have pointed out the difficulty of tackling trafficking while looking to withdraw from organisations like Europol or the EU Arrest Warrant.

I applaud May’s commitment to ending modern slavery, but would ask her to avoid letting Tory prejudices on immigration and Europe undermine these efforts.

Prostitution Gets a Red Card From the European Parliament

Labour Party

A campaign aimed at cracking down on the sexual exploitation of women at sporting events has just been launched in the European Parliament.

I was one of 20 MEPs who participated in the launch of this campaign organised by the European Women’s Lobby (EWL). In a message to athletes, officials, fans, journalists and decision-makers ahead of the London Olympics and the UEFA European Football Championships in Poland and Ukraine, we all held up red cards which read ‘Be a sport. Keep it fair… Say NO to prostitution.’

The police and others are concerned there will be on increase in prostitution in the run up to the Olympic Games in London.  Major sporting events are regularly coupled with a boom in prostitution, fuelled by the trafficking of women and girls. During the 2006 World Cup in Germany, national authorities noted an increase in the number of prostitutes in host areas.  The 2010 South African World Cup brought about a ‘huge’ increase in the sex trade, with the number of women and girls involved in prostitution, as well as the number of brothels, doubling.  Worryingly, there was research conducted in 2009 that had already found signs of increases in prostitution in the London boroughs hosting the Olympics.

I agree with the EWL’s position that prostitution is a form of violence against women which hinders the realisation of gender equality.  Women in prostitution face regular violence and rape, as well as lower life expectancy and serious mental and physical damage.  The abuse of women’s bodies and sexuality inherent in the system of prostitution feeds into a broader pattern of widespread violence against women.

I am a big supporter of the London Olympics and can’t wait for games to start, but I hope with awareness raising campaigns such as this, and the support of the police in London, we can make sure that we don’t see an increase in the trafficking and sexual exploitation of girls and women this summer.

Coalition Goverment says no to EU Anti-Trafficking Measures

Labour Party

As regular readers of my blog will be aware,  I have written before about the EU’s new human trafficking directive and also ran a campaign against the Metropolitan Police Authorities proposed closure of their specialised unit dealing with this matter.  This issue has never seemed to me to be particularly partisan, it being widely accepted that trafficking causes untold misery and ruins the lives of many, especially women and children.  So I could not believe it when I heard about the coalition government’s plan to ‘opt-out’ of the new directive specifically designed to help combat trafficking.

For me,  and I hope everyone else, the most important aspect of the directive is its focus on protecting the victims of trafficking.  Such protection would mean that people who are trafficked into criminal enterprises in the UK, such as the sex trade or cannabis farming, could not be charged over false immigration papers forced on them by the gang responsible for their move. 

The new directive,  still currently in committee, also looks to create a single EU wide definition of trafficking and allow for the law courts to try people who commit trafficking offences in another EU state.  This is crucial to the combating of trafficking since many of the crimes that help sustain the practice, such as document forgery, kidnapping, intimidation and violence will occur in another country before the victim has reached the UK. 

The directive will allow for trafficking crimes to be prosecuted in UK courts, thereby helping to stop the industry of trafficking as well as bring criminals to justice.  The anti-trafficking measures seem right and proper to me.  However,  a Home Office statement in early August said that there were already ample measures in place to combat trafficking in the UK.  An interesting view since, in June this year, an umbrella group of charities and NGOs released a study saying that the anti-trafficking measures in the UK were woefully inadequate.   

I am not alone in my outrage, with leading charities criticising the decision as well as Denis MacShane writing to Nick Clegg, asking him to persuade the Tories to change their mind. 

It is deeply depressing to think that the Conservatives would make a decision that could have a huge impact on the effectiveness of our police force in combating human trafficking on the basis of the odious and irrational anti-European stance.  David Cameron and William Hague have said that they will not cede powers to the EU without a referendum (though they have already put the lie to that particular promise), so I can’t help but feel that the rejection of a powerful and necessary tool in the fight against such an egregious crime is all part of some pathetic political posturing. The idea we would even have to ask the (supposedly) pro-European Clegg to persuade the Tories to think again on this crucial issue is very, very worrying.

Letter to The Guardian

Labour Party

You may have read Nick Davies’ controversial article in The Guardian on Tuesday, in which he argued that there has been a ‘tide of misinformation’ surrounding sex trafficking and that figures have been exaggerated. This, I believe, is a highly dangerous and misleading conclusion to draw. I responded to this article with a letter, which was printed in yesterday’s edition of The Guardian. You can read it here. As I make clear, trafficking figures are often very difficult to determine since victims are frequently too afraid to come forward. Even if they do pluck up the courage to speak out about what they have endured, many find themselves too afraid to give evidence. As a result, the guilty are often charged with an offense that is quite different to the one they have committed (if they face prosecution at all).

If, like me, you feel strongly that trafficking is a vicious crime which must be tackled using the greatest possible resources, then join the hundreds of people who have already signed my petition to stop the Met closing down its specialist trafficking unit.