International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Candles and messages commemorating dead sex workers: "Annette Nicholls, 29 years old, Murdered 2006, Ipswich, UK," "Fight violence, not sex workers."On the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, 17 December, Jean Urquhart has given her support to the voluntary organisations that work to protect the health and saftey of sex workers in Scotland.

Thousands of sex workers and sex worker-led organisations around the world, and their allies, mark each 17 December as the the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The event began in 2003 to honour the sex workers who were murdered by the Green River Killer in Seattle, and 2015 is the 12th annual event.

Jean joined the sex-worker charity ScotPep, the grassroots collective Sex Worker Open University (SWOU), the community health project Umbrella Lane and HIV charity Terence Higgins Trust Scotland in observing the day and calling for the decriminalisation of sex work, as proposed by Jean’s Prostitution Law Reform Bill.

Criminalisation and stigma mean that sex workers are disproportionately vulnerable to violence, including in Scotland. Jean has brought forward the proposed Bill to change the law to make sex workers safer, and her proposals that have been supported by every sex worker-led organisation in Scotland.

Jean said:

“When I started speaking with sex workers in Scotland I was struck by what they told me about how the law makes them less safe. For example, two women working together for safety in a flat can be both arrested for brothel-keeping, which forces sex workers to work alone – and signals to predators that they are ‘easy targets’.

“It should be unconscionable that the law makes sex workers so vulnerable to violence, and I’m proud to have brought forward proposals that are based on what people who sell sex say will keep them safe. International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers should be a day of reflection, and I hope that my colleagues in Holyrood will reflect on whether it should be acceptable for another year to pass with sex workers in Scotland still denied access to safety and justice.”

Luca Stevenson, co-founder of the Sex Worker Open University, said:

“Violence against sex workers is endemic across Europe. Too often, the supposed ‘solution’ is presented as the criminalisation of clients – a disastrous policy failure that has made sex workers vastly more vulnerable to violence, HIV, and stigma. Jean Urquhart’s proposals can lead the way in Europe in showing that laws built around respect for sex workers are possible.”

Nadine Stott, ScotPep co-chair, said:

“Sex workers in Scotland have seen another year pass where criminalisation has meant that they are still vulnerable to violence. However, there is also hope: for the first time this year, a debate about sex work policy launched with the voices and concerns of sex workers themselves at the heart of it. We’re looking forward to 2016, hopeful that this will set the tone for future discussion about the laws that affect sex workers. Only then can policy be shaped in such a way as to push back on the epidemic of violence that sex workers in Scotland face.”

ScotPep board member Raven Bowen said:

“Today as we light our candles and honour our dead, we also recognise that all eyes are on Scotland in 2016, which can be among the first countries to stand on behalf of sex workers and enact legislation that prioritises their health, safety and human rights. Sex workers, activists and researchers are redoubling advocacy efforts across the United Kingdom to ensure that sex workers are never again denied their due rights and the benefits of citizenship.”

Anastacia Ryan, co-founder of Umbrella Lane, said:

“Sex workers were telling us that they were feeling unable to access health and support services in the Glasgow area because of the stigma and judgement that they were being subject to. This is an unacceptable state of affairs: sex workers deserve unimpeded access to health care and to support. We set up Umbrella Lane as a community-led health project to fill this gap, because stigma, judgement, and lack of access to healthcare are also forms of violence against sex workers.

“We’ve been delighted by the supportive response from the community and from sex workers accessing our services – there is a growing recognition that stigma and criminalisation should be consigned to the past, and Jean Urquhart’s proposals are a key part of moving our society forward.”

Robert McKay, National Director at Terrence Higgins Trust Scotland said:

“Tackling violence against sex workers is a crucial component of reducing the transmission of HIV and improving the sexual health of everyone in the industry. This is why the Terrence Higgins Trust Scotland, like our colleagues elsewhere in the UK, has long supported the full decriminalisation of sex work along the lines of Jean Urquhart’s proposals. On International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, Terrence Higgins Trust Scotland again calls on policymakers to listen to sex workers and the evidence – Scotland needs the New Zealand model.”

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Speech: Land Reform Act – stop Scottish land being owned in offshore tax havens

The Scottish Parliament has voted in favour of the Land Reform Bill at Stage 1, allowing it to progress to the detailed committee stage. Jean spoke in the debate to call for a ban on Scottish land being owned outside the EU, especially in secretive jurisdictions like Caribbean tax havens. You can read more about that issue in a new report from RISE.

On this page you can read Jean’s speech, and watch the video of the debate – Jean’s contribution starts at 1:52:50. You can read the full transcript of the debate in the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):

I would like to recommend a book that everybody should read in order to better understand the passion with which we should deal with land reform — Our Scots Noble Families, by Tom Johnston, who, famously, was possibly the best Secretary of State for Scotland we ever had. It explains how land was acquired by some of the landowners who are still there today.

There is no doubt that the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 was welcome and that it has only fed the desire for more and better legislation on land reform. I will not go over all the issues that have been covered by others, such as how the Highland estates that Rhoda Grant referred to came about, but I would like to challenge John Lamont’s point that it is the people who own the land who know best how to work it. In defence of landowners, he said that the state does not know best. I suggest that nothing that we are talking about here is about the state knowing best; it is about the fact that the people who live on the land and the communities that are there know best.

The evidence is there for all of us to see. Less than two weeks ago, the Pairc estate community achieved ownership of its 28,000 acres, and I have no doubt that it will follow Eigg, Assynt and Stòras Uibhist in getting more and more people to live on the land and creating more and more jobs. Such an arrangement benefits the people who live there and their community far more than does ownership by an absentee landowner, which was the situation with the Pairc estate until two weeks ago. I think that we should celebrate the fact that the community has achieved ownership of the Pairc estate after 13 years—that is how long it has taken it to get ownership of the land. If the bill means that no other community has to go through that, bring it on.

Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con):

I think that Jean Urquhart might agree that we have had two acts on crofting that have not delivered very much for the crofters. Will she try to ensure that the Government makes certain that the bill will deliver for tenant farmers?

Jean Urquhart:

I thank Jamie McGrigor for raising that issue. We had the ludicrous situation in which somebody who owned 28,000 acres in Lewis was not required to meet any of the regulations that someone who owns 20 acres in Shetland or anywhere else has to meet. We must think about exactly what we are asking for. Of course we have argued for the crofting legislation to be changed, and of course the whole system needs to be reviewed, but that is not what we are arguing for in the bill.

I want to talk about tax havens and the link between corruption, offshore corporate property and land ownership. It is clearly established in a recent Transparency International report that:

“Land owned in offshore jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands, Jersey and Guernsey is particularly common in London, and 75% of properties under investigation for corruption are using offshore ownership to hide their identities.”

The problem is not confined to south-east England; another recent investigation found that as much as 750,000 acres in Scotland, most of it on Highland estates, is owned in offshore tax havens. That is a disgrace, and it potentially makes it impossible to find the real owners, which could be a series of shell companies and trusts. If they are registered in offshore secrecy jurisdictions, the legal means to reveal ownership is not available. Consequently, the land reform review group recommended strongly that the problem be tackled, saying that:

“the Scottish Government should make it incompetent for any legal entity not registered in a member state of the European Union to register title to land in the Land Register of Scotland, to improve traceability and accountability in the public interest.”

That is what many would like to happen.

Of course, Andy Wightman has long campaigned on and highlighted these issues, and, like the Government, he is clearly having some success in raising land reform as an issue. There is interest out there; indeed, more than 200 people emailed me about this debate, and I know that the same has happened to other members. The mass of people who responded to the consultation shows that individuals are recognising the injustice in this situation.

As late as the mid-1980s, we were paying a feudal tax to our feudal landlord on a very small bit of land in Ullapool — I think that I am right in saying that England stopped being a feudal country something like 400 years before. This legislation is therefore long overdue, because change is desperately needed. People must be able to access the land. The Stoddart family have been mentioned already, and I know of a school in north-west Sutherland that sits in the middle of a loch, which I thought was quite romantic until I discovered that it is there because the then landowner refused to give the people land for the school. When he was pressed by the council and told that a compulsory purchase order could be made, he offered the loch, which the people had to take.

There are many wrongs to be righted, and this bill is to be welcomed as the first step on that long road.