Is it time to decriminalise sex work?
That was the question, dropped quietly into the public debate on this issue by some of the UK’s most senior police officers last week, as part of their response to ongoing Home Office consultations on the issue.
Speaking in support of the recently released ACPO Strategy for Policing Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation, Simon Byrne, Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police and ACPO lead in this area said he welcomed a debate about alternative policy approaches that could be taken, to better equip the service to protect its communities and its individuals.
He said: “There is a great amount of academic research available, much of which supports the view that an alternative approach is needed. An example would be the decriminalisation and regulation of brothels in Australia and New Zealand, not an answer to all of the related issues but certainly a solution to some.”
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) expressed regret that it had taken the murders of countless sex workers, including five young women in Ipswich and three women in Bradford in the last few years, for the police to suggest that the prostitution laws are not ‘fit for purpose’ and that New Zealand type decriminalisation should be considered.
A spokeswoman added: “New Zealand successfully decriminalised prostitution both indoors and on the street eight years ago. There has been no increase in prostitution since and sex workers find it safer.
“Any measures on prostitution should be first of all judged by whether they make sex workers safer.”
She concluded: “ACPO is right to ask why New Zealand’s decriminalisation is not being followed, especially at a time when cuts in benefits, homelessness, lack of jobs, student fees and rising debt are driving more women especially mothers in to prostitution to survive and support their families.
“The government should act before more sex workers lose their lives.”
The announcement also received cautious welcome from the International Union of Sex Workers. Their spokeswoman said: “We are glad to see ACPO recognise that ‘the safety of people engaged in sex work must be paramount to the police service’.
“We are also glad to see awareness of the practical work currently underway that increases the protection of people in the sex industry.
“However, there remains an inherent contradiction between the police role of protection and enforcement, and sex workers will continue to bear the consequences of this in terms of violence and other abuses. ”
ACPO – the body that brings together Chief Officers from the UK’s various Police Forces – often comes in for a degree of criticism, particularly from the more rampantly anti-Police elements in society. Sometimes, critics have a point.
More often, they miss the much larger truth: that ACPO is a place where individuals tasked with devising strategies to support law and order nationwide are able to sit back and think practically and in depth on difficult topics. Just as we sit up and take notice when the Women’s Institute goes public on a difficult issue, so, too with ACPO.
And on a range of issues – from drugs to sex work – their approach is far more nuanced and, dare one suggest it, far more intelligent than anything spewed out by politicans or the Home Office.
ACPO have not come out in favour of decriminalisation. They do, however, share with the ECP a recognition that sex work is not some simplistic black-and-white moral issue: that it is based in local circumstances; and that “solutions” need to take a much wider range of factors into account.
That is all good and if Mr Byrne is genuinely in favour of more open dialogue in this area, this is a very welcome move indeed.
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