The Department of Justice in Northern Ireland has published a report required under the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act 2015 into the operation of the newly introduced offence of paying for sexual services.
After the Act became law, Northern Ireland became the first and so far only part of the UK where it is illegal to buy sexual services.
The report from Queen’s University suggests the existing law, which criminalises the buying of sexual services, has proven to be ineffective in reducing demand for sexual services. It also raises questions over the impact of the new legislation on individuals who are in prostitution.
The outcome of this research came as little surprise considering the well-known position of one of the lead authors of the research, Dr Graham Ellison, on this subject. Going back to 2012, Dr Ellison has been a consistent critic of the approach of criminalising the purchase of sexual services.
For example, in evidence given to the Justice Committee in 2014, he said the following: “I believe that the premise of the Nordic model (a term used to describe laws which criminalise the purchase of sex) with its term ‘asymmetric criminalisation, where you criminalise the client not the seller, does not work in practice.”
The methodology and language adopted in the report clearly reflects the ideological position that prostitution is a valid form of work and that criminalising the purchase of sexual services is an ineffective approach to take.
We at CARE NI, alongside a number of other voices, questioned the decision to reward the contract for this piece of research to individuals who it is well known were opposed to the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services.We do not think prostitution is not simply a job like any other. The majority of those in prostitution are not there out of choice, but due to a range of other factors, such as exploitation, coercion or abuse.
Before the report was even written, Claire Sugden, an ex-justice minister warned her former department about the need to ensure the research into this report was fair and truly independent. The report makes it amply clear her fears were well-founded.
It is noteworthy in the report that Women’s Aid, the main support provider for women who have been trafficked in Northern Ireland, have not contributed to this research. It is not clear why this is the case, but it certainly detracts from the overall findings of the research considering the reach and importance of Women’s Aid in Northern Ireland. The voice of individuals who have left prostitution or of trafficked women is also almost entirely absent from the document.
Crucially, the report documents the view of the police in NI, which is that the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act, including section 15, remains a “useful piece of legislation”. This has been the consistent view of the PSNI since the legislation was first introduced. It is also important to give due weight to the fact that under the new law there have been successful prosecutions which was categorically not the case under the old law.
We also note that the Department of Justice did the absolute minimum it could to publicise the new legislation when it passed. Rather than run a campaign raising awareness, they sent out just one cursory press release. This is hardly in keeping with the spirit of the legislation which required the DoJ to make sure people were informed about the change in law.
It remains relatively early days in the implementation of this new offence. We accept, alongside the authors of this report, that the support services for those exiting prostitution have not been developed as they need to be. We remain of the view that the PSNI and the PPS need to be willing to prioritise enforcing the new law so that it can have the full effect it can truly have.