On Friday, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced that he favoured decriminalising prostitution. He told students at Goldsmiths University: "I am in favour of decriminalising the sex industry. I don't want people to be criminalised. I want to be in a society where we don't automatically criminalise people." He seems to be adopting the position of Amnesty International who caused a stir last year by saying they were going to campaign for global decriminalisation of prostitution. If successful, this would mean a huge boost for pimps, greater freedom for brothel owners, an increase in prostitution levels and more fundamentally, more vulnerable men and women exploited for the use of their bodies.
Corbyn has got this one completely wrong. My colleague wrote last year for Christian Today about why he thought Amnesty was on the verge of a terrible mistake. His views really echo my own. Prostitution is an incredibly dangerous profession. It is inherently unsafe. The decriminalisation approach is both wrong in principle and would be a disaster in practice.
Corbyn's remarks did not go down well with Labour MPs. The former deputy leader of the Labour party, Harriet Harman, tweeted:
Prostitution's exploitation and abuse not "work/an industry". Women should be protected and men prosecuted. https://t.co/wRWlp1lJZm— Harriet Harman (@HarrietHarman) March 4, 2016
The Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Phillips also criticised her leader on Twitter:
Maybe I'm wrong and @jeremycorbyn mean he wanted to criminalise buyers & decriminalize women. In which case we agree.Waits to hear that....— Jess Phillips MP (@jessphillips) March 4, 2016
In fact, there is little evidence Corbyn's personal views on this topic are reflective of official Labour party policy. After all, it wasn't that long ago that Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart was trying to introduce a law at Westminster that would criminalise the purchase of sex.
This is a better approach and one CARE supports. We support the criminalisation of the purchase of sex, crucially, because the vast majority of men and women in prostitution are not there because they choose to be. This should inform our whole approach to the issue. Who do we want to be making laws for – the vulnerable majority, or the contended minority? We need a clearer grasp of how exploitative this profession is.
Look at what happened recently in Leeds. This year a pilot scheme that created a red-light district in the city was made permanent. This was despite the tragic death of a young woman, 21-year-old Daria Pionko who was murdered, despite operating in this 'safe-zone'. Last week, a former detective superintendent said on the Today programme that the scheme in Leeds was a "catastrophic fail". Research conducted in 2012 showed 61 per cent of women surveyed had experienced violence from buyers of sexual services. This is not a trade like any other. It is supremely dangerous and is often driven by exploitation and abuse. We must recognise these dangers in framing our response.
And we do need a response because the current law is simply not working. Both those in favour of criminalising the buyer and those who want prostitution to be decriminalised recognise the weaknesses in the existing legislation. At the moment it is illegal to buy sex from anyone who is coerced. However because it is very difficult to prove coercion, there have been precious few prosecutions under this offence.
So I welcome the ongoing Home Affairs Committee inquiry into prostitution law in the UK because it is both vital and timely. We need urgent reform to the current law on prostitution. We can either give greater licence to those who abuse others for the sake of profit. Or we can put the burden of criminality on the buyer and make sure we improve exit pathways for those wishing to leave prostitution.
Rachel Moran, a survivor of prostitution, spoke eloquently on BBC Radio 5 live last week about the danger she was in when she worked in the sex industry. We need to listen to women like Rachel. Jeremy Corbyn said he did not want to live in a society where people are automatically criminalised. But this free for all approach ignores the basic danger and gruesome realities of life as a prostitute for many people. Corbyn can offer no solace to the many prostitutes who want to leave, but feel they cannot. We need to support prostitutes, not pimps. Let's shift the burden and criminalise the buyer and do all we can to provide proper support for all those vulnerable people who feel trapped in a life they desperately want to leave.