Jean launches new Bill to decriminalise sex work

Women from the Sex Workers' Open University demostrate with red umbrellas and placards reading 'Solidarity with sex workers'.
Photo: Sex Workers’ Open University
Jean Urquhart has published a consultation on a new law to promote sex workers’ rights and safety by decriminalising sex work.

Jean’s proposed Prostitution Law Reform (Scotland) Bill has been developed in close consultation with sex workers in Scotland, and are supported by SCOT-PEP, a charity which campaigns for the rights of sex workers. It has also been supported by HIV Scotland and NUS Scotland, and the decriminalisation approach taken by Jean’s proposals is backed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation.

Read Jean’s personal messageDownload the consultation

The proposed Bill would:

The four key elements of the proposed legislation are as follows:

  1. Permit small groups of sex workers (up to four) to work together from the same premises, and for larger premises to be licensed. Currently, even two sex workers who work together for safety are criminalised for brothel-keeping – forcing sex workers to work alone increases their vulnerability to violence.
  2. Scrap laws against soliciting and kerb-crawling. Evidence shows both measures reduce the amount of time sex workers have to assess their safety and agree services, which again increases their vulnerability to violence.
  3. Extend protection against coercion, which only applies to female sex workers under current legislation, and make those provisions more robust – in line with what sex workers say they need.
  4. Permit sex workers to have joint finances with their families or flatmates. Currently the partners and family of sex workers are criminalised, which is isolating and stigmatising, and assumes coercion rather than tackling coercion directly.

The consultation is open for responses from the pubic until December 1st 2015. You can download the consultation document here.

Speaking about why she has developed the proposals, Jean said:

“With the death of Margo MacDonald, Scotland’s sex workers lost an irreplaceable friend and ally. With the exception of the proposals she campaigned for, the debate about Scotland’s prostitution laws has for too long been conducted as if sex workers should be pushed out of sight. They have been systematically ignored while laws which expose them to violence and stigma have been preserved or extended. These proposals take on board not only the experience and concerns of sex workers, but also reflect a growing international consensus that what sex workers most need is safety and labour rights, not the risks which come from criminalisation.

“Despite the support for decriminalisation offered by organisations from Amnesty International to the World Health Organisation, these proposals will be controversial. Some think sex work is simply immoral, or cannot be made safer, or that punishing clients can be done without harming sex workers. Others claim that sex workers are somehow themselves responsible for the problems of a sexist society. I would urge anyone who takes those views to read the evidence, to read the consultation, and to consider whether their feelings are more important than sex workers’ right to work safely.”

Nadine Stott, co-chair of the sex workers’ rights charity SCOTPEP, said:

“We are incredibly grateful to Jean Urquhart for bringing forward the first comprehensive set of proposals designed to allow sex workers to work safely in Scotland. The purchase and sale of sex is currently legal, but in general, the law prevents sex workers from being able to work safely, and that must end. There is no reason why sex work should only be permissible if a single person works alone in their flat, for example. That law leaves sex workers vulnerable to violence and exploitation, as do the current laws on street-based sex work, which also seriously hamper sex workers’ ability to move onto other work.

“The evidence from New Zealand, where similar proposals were passed in 2003 in close consultation with sex worker-led organisations, is that putting safety first works. The New Zealand model reduces violence, enables sex workers to have greater confidence in reporting crimes to the police. It has also not led to an increase in sex work. We look forward to supporting this process through Parliament, to seeing responses to the consultation, and to working with MSPs to put sex workers’ safety at the heart of the debate for the first time.”

Stewart Cunningham, also co-chair of SCOTPEP, said:

“I recently had the opportunity to visit New Zealand to explore the effects of their legal model first hand. While I was there I met with sex workers, representatives of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, and a number of academics who have studied the impact of the law, and I am convinced now more than ever that this is a legislative model that Scotland must adopt. In New Zealand, the rights, health and safety of sex workers are prioritised above any moral or ideological objection to exchanging sex for money. I met with the former sex worker who was the first person to take a brothel manager to court for sexual harassment and was awarded $25,000 in compensation. She emphasised to me how in a decriminalized system she did not have to tolerate harassment and abuse from her manager and was empowered to use the law to hold him to account.

“The effect of the New Zealand approach to sex work is summed up in the words of the human rights tribunal in this case when they said simply that ‘sex workers have the same human rights as other workers.’ It is time that Scotland began prioritising the rights and protection of people who trade or sell sex, for whatever reason, rather than arresting and prosecuting them and perpetuating harm.”

George Valiotis, Chief Executive Officer for HIV Scotland, said:

“International organisations like UNAIDS and the World Health Organization have long called for the decriminalisation of sex work, and Jean’s proposals are firmly based in that evidence. In 2012, the WHO called the decriminalisation of sex work a ‘minimum global standard’. Criminalisation clearly inhibits sex workers’ safety and access to services, including HIV-related services. As such, we welcome any move to follow these international and evidenced-based recommendations.”

NUS Scotland President Vonnie Sandlan said:

“I’m delighted that these proposals have been brought forward – they are long overdue. The safety and rights of sex workers is a feminist issue, and one which we know is of great importance to students in Scotland. As a feminist I wholeheartedly support these measures, and hope that they signify the start of a new normal in policymaking, where the voices and experiences of sex workers are prioritised.”

Luca Stevenson, co-ordinator for the European Network of Sex Work Projects (ICRSE), said:

“ICRSE, a European network of seventy five organisations advocating for sex workers’ rights, strongly supports this decriminalisation bill.

“The criminalisation of sex work profoundly fails to protect sex workers. Criminalisation of the purchase of sex, as experimented with in Sweden and Norway, increased the stigma directed against sex workers, and increased sex workers’ vulnerability to violence – and made them less likely to report abuse and violence to the police. We hope MSPs will listen to sex workers and human rights organisations who, after years of research, unequivocally support decriminalisation.”

Cat, a sex worker in Scotland, said:

“Finally a politician has listened to us and put our safety first. I can’t understand why policymakers love to talk about how dangerous sex work is and yet support laws that force us to sell sex alone. Jean listened to people currently selling sex in Scotland and actually cared about our safety, rather than grandstanding or seeing us as a problem to be ‘cleared away’. I hope other politicians will follow her lead.”

Mike, a male sex worker, said:

“I have worked for several years in Glasgow, offering sexual services to men. Society needs to comes to terms that many of us have decided to sell sex and laws that criminalise us do not stop sex work. Many of my clients are mature men who have only recently accepted their sexuality and prefer to hire an escort than hanging out on the ‘gay scene’ or using apps. It is unbelievable that people would want to see either my clients or myself fined or jailed. Criminalising consensual sex between adults should be confined to the 1960s, not a modern democratic country like Scotland.”

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Jean condemns Cameron’s draconian and unjust immigration plans

Jean launching her Not My Xenophobia campaign with Glasgow Girls campaigner Roza Salih and Scottish Greens co-convenor Maggie Chapman
Jean launching her Not My Xenophobia campaign with Glasgow Girls campaigner Roza Salih and Scottish Greens co-convenor Maggie Chapman
Jean Urquhart has spoken out against the radical anti-immigration plans announced by David Cameron this morning, and pledged to investigate ways the Scottish Parliament could resist some of the proposals.

In a speech at the Home Office, Cameron said the Queen’s Speech next week would include measures to create a criminal offence of ‘illegal working’ and confiscate the wages of undocumented migrants, adopt what he called a “deport-first-appeal-later” approach to immigration appeals, and make landlords and banks investigate the immigration status of tenants and customers.

Jean said:

“Cameron’s speech this morning scapegoated migrants, then used that as a pretext for shockingly draconian and unjust proposals. It’s hard to put it any more succinctly than the Sky reporter who summarised Cameron’s message to migrants as: ‘we are going to treat you like criminals.’

“His plan for a criminal offence of ‘illegal working’ is nothing less than a back-door way of criminalising undocumented migrants. If undocumented migrants working in our businesses and contributing to our economy really was the problem he claims, he would punish the employers, not the migrants.

“From Legal Aid cuts to employment tribunal charges, the Conservatives in government have made a concerted assault on access to justice and today’s speech continued that effort. His plan to deport undocumented migrants without appeal, forcing them to attempt to appeal remotely from another country, radically reduces the chance of a fair hearing.

“Cameron’s plan to turn landlords into immigration officers by making them investigate their tenants, and to automatically cancel tenancies when visas expire, seems to cross the line from immigration policy to housing policy – which is a devolved matter. So I will be looking into what the Scottish Parliament can do to protect our migrant tenants from suffering this intrusion and threat of homelessness.

“I’m hugely grateful to all those who have already taken part in the #notmyxenophobia campaign online by calling out anti-immigrant attitudes in politics and the media. This renewed attack on migrants makes it all the more important that refuse to be quiet in the face of xenophobia.”

Jean launched Not My Xenophobia in March, inviting Scots social media users to name-and-shame examples of xenophobic language, stereotypes and attitudes they see being used by newspapers, adverts, TV programmes and politicians. You can take part in the campaign by sharing any examples of bigotry and xenophobia on Twitter with the hashtag #notmyxenophobia, or on the campaign’s Facebook page, or by emailing jean@notmyxenophobia.scot.

Jean calls for an ambitous plan to restore marine ecosystems

Scallop fishing off Skye. Photo by Alex Berger.
Scallop fishing off Skye. Photo by Alex Berger.

Jean has welcomed the Scottish Government’s draft National Marine Plan, but urged Ministers to include more ambitious measures to secure restore damaged ecosystems such as Wester Ross’s vital mearl beds.

During a Scottish Parliament debate on the plan last Thursday, Jean praised the Government for their progress on what will be the first national-level marine plan in the UK.

However, she said the final plan should aim not just to preserve damaged ecosystems in their current state, but ensure their recovery and growth.

Jean said:

“The draft National Marine Plan is a great start and ministers deserve praise for that. But as it develops, it needs to be more ambitious about restoring vital ecosystems, and more responsive to emerging science and the ever-changing nature of the sea.

“Wester Ross’s beds of the coral-like seaweed called maerl provide a habitat for thousands of other marine species. They are particularly economically important for scallop fishing, providing the perfect nursery for you scallops. But they are also among the most badly-damaged maerl beds in Scotland.

“The current plan draws a protective area tightly around the existing beds, providing little opportunity for growth. It doesn’t even cover some more recently-discovered areas, showing the necessity for a flexible plan that can respond to new information.

“There are examples like this right around Scotland, but each case is different, so it’s also important that communities have real power to implement the national plan in a way that suits local needs.”

“We also need to be sure that the plan is adhered to, otherwise it’s really just a piece of paper. That means a little more clarity in the plan itself, but most importantly it means both the Scottish and UK governments providing appropriate resources to protect our seas.

“The grounding of the Lysblink Seaways on Ardnamurchan last week was another reminder that, for both crew safety and the marine environment, we need an emergency towing vessel in the Minch.”

Scottish Natural Heritage explains what maerl is and why it is so important:

“Maerl is an unusual seaweed – an unattached red seaweed called ‘coralline’ algae. These seaweeds deposit lime in their cell walls as they grow, giving them a hard, brittle skeleton.

“Maerl beds provide vital shelter for a wide range of marine creatures. Experiments have shown that young scallops in particular have a strong preference for living maerl beds as nursery areas. Protecting maerl beds therefore helps to sustain scallop fishing, important commercially in western Scotland. It is ironic, therefore, that scallop dredging has been shown to cause significant damage both to maerl beds – by breaking up and burying the thin layer of living maerl – and to their associated species. Maerl is fragile and slow-growing, and can also be damaged by heavy anchors and mooring chains.”

Read more at the SNH website.

Jean to host cross-party summit on controversial women’s prison

Jean will convene a cross-party summit tomorrow to discuss the controversial proposal to build a new women’s prison at Inverkip Road in Greenock. Representatives of the Scottish Greens, the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems have confirmed they will attend, along with concerned groups including Women For Independence, Engender, Howard League Scotland and Circle Scotland.

The female prison population has risen by 120% since 2000, despite conviction rates remaining stable. The Commission on Women Offenders, chaired by former Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini QC, recommended that the existing women’s prison at HMP Cornton Vale be closed and replaced with “a smaller specialist prison for those women offenders serving a statutory defined long-term sentence and those who present a significant risk to the public”, but the Inverkip Road proposal is for a 300-capacity prison, 70 places larger than Cornton Vale.

Jean said:

“We imprison far too many people in this country. Women offenders in particular are far less likely to represent any danger to the public, and locking them up is far more likely to cause harm to their families – possibly including increasing the likelihood of their children going on to offend.

“I believe the Scottish Government understands the need for better community sentencing and less incarceration. They should have the courage of their convictions and put their money into making community sentencing work, not building a dumping ground for women in case it doesn’t.

“I’m really encouraged that this will be a genuinely cross-party meeting, with every party except the Conservatives already confirmed. We will really benefit from the expertise and views of campaigners and experts from Women For Independence, Engender, the Howard League and Circle Scotland.

“I think everyone is in agreement in our aspirations for more effective, more compassionate handling of women offenders, so I’m hopeful for a really productive meeting that’s about working out how to get there rather than scoring political points.”

The meeting will be held on Thursday afternoon at a venue near the Scottish Parliament, so that attendees will not cross the picket line in support of the one-day strike action by the PCS union.

Congratulations to Scotland’s Mercury Prize winners, Young Fathers

Young Fathers
Young Fathers, photo by Sarah Nuehring

Jean has congratulated the hip-hop group Young Fathers, which was formed by Kayus Bankole, ‘G’ Hastings and Alloysious Massaquoi in Edinburgh in 2008, on winning the 2014 Mercury Prize for their debut album, Dead. They are the first Scottish act to win the Mercury since Franz Ferdinand in 2004.

Jean, who is Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Culture, lodged a motion in the Parliament celebrating the trio’s success, and also recognising the enormous contribution that immigrant communities have made to Scottish arts and culture, today and throughout our history. Alloysious Massaquoi was born in Liberia, and Kayus Bankole was born in Scotland to Nigerian parents.

The motion, which has so far been co-signed by 11 other MSPs, reads:

Motion S4M-11362: Jean Urquhart, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 30/10/2014
Congratulations to Young Fathers on Winning the 2014 Mercury Prize

That the Parliament congratulates Kayus Bankole, G Hastings and Alloysious Massaquoi of the Scottish hip-hop group, Young Fathers, on the group’s debut album, Dead, winning the 2014 Mercury Prize; believes that this win is indicative of the strength, innovation and diversity of Scottish popular music today; notes that Alloysious and the parents of Kayus were immigrants to Scotland, and celebrates the enormous and essential contribution that immigrants make to Scotland’s culture.

To watch the video for Get Up, from the Mercury Prize-winning Dead, click here.

Jean backs Orcadian woman’s call to end charity tax breaks for private schools

Orkney resident Ashley Husband Powton, a postgraduate student at the University of the Highlands and Islands, has petitioned the Scottish Parliament to remove charitable status from private schools. She presented 310 signatures in support of the change to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee on Tuesday 28 October.

VIDEO: Ashley Husband Powton answers questions on her petition from MSPs.
VIDEO: Ashley Husband Powton answers questions on her petition from MSPs.

Jean has congratulated Ashley on her campaign and her composure in the face of hostile questioning from some members of the committee.

As charities, Scotland’s fee-paying schools enjoy an 80% reduction on non-domestic rates. The discount cut the tax liability of Fettes College in Edinburgh, whose alumni include Tony Blair, from £209,139 to £41,828 in 2011, while the council-run Wester Hailes high school in one of the poorest parts of the city paid its £261,873 tax bill in full.

Following Ms Husband Powton’s evidence, MSPs agreed to ask the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) to attend a future meeting of the Petitions Committee to answer questions on their interpretation of the charities rules.

Jean said:

“I congratulate Ashley on creating this petition, and especially on calmly facing down some very discourteous questioning at the Parliament.

“Private schools are one of the ways that privilege and inequality is entrenched in the UK. They enable wealthy parents to effectively buy access to the top universities and the top jobs, ensuring that the people born at the top of society are likely to stay there.

“Private schools’ impact on equal opportunity and social mobility is bad enough, without ordinary people being asked to subsidise them through tax breaks intended to support real charities.

“It is claimed that the schools deserve charitable status because they provide bursaries to less wealthy students. But Fettes, as an example, provides fees assistance to only 10% of its pupils, and only 6 pupils pay no fees at all. The overwhelming majority of privately-educated children are there because their parents can afford to pay up top £30,000 per year in fees.

“Meanwhile state schools, which genuinely exist to serve every child, get no special treatment and are expected to pay their taxes in full.

“Private schools should not be treated as charities. I look forward to hearing OSCR’s response to Ashley’s petition, but if they are not satisfactory I’m sure her campaign will continue, and she can count on my support.”

Anyone can bring a petition to the Scottish Parliament. Find out more about public petitions here.

Jean on the referendum: “It will not stop our ambition.”

In her speech in yesterday’s Scottish Parliament debate on the referendum, Jean pledged that she will always be committed to Scotland governing itself. While of course we accept the result, she said, “the idea that 1.6 million people can, overnight, drop their enthusiasm for and excitement about the future is not correct,” and so we should see the referendum as the start of a road not the end.

Jean celebrated the way in which the referendum brought so many people back in touch with Scotland, with campaigners seeing more of the country, and everyone creating their own vision of its future: “The exciting thing is that people have found their place and have, beyond discovering Scotland, discovered politics and even themselves. Through this campaign, we have excited people about the possibilities of their involvement in the governance of Scotland.”

You can watch Jean’s speech at BBC Democracy Live – skip to 1:36:20.

The full transcript of Jean’s speech follows. You can read the full debate in the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report.

I thank the First Minister for his statement and acknowledge the extraordinary contribution that he has made over all these years. I am slightly taken aback by the comments that suggest that he is in the past now. I simply do not accept that. He may be demitting office, but I do not doubt that he still has a huge role to play in Scottish politics.

Similarly, I do not think that the result that we received on Friday morning means that the matter is done and dusted and is the settled will of the Scottish people. It may be the result that was voted for by a majority of people on that big and fantastic occasion, but life goes on and things change. Will everybody who voted yes be content with whatever the vow turns out to be? I doubt it. There will always be people who are committed to Scotland governing herself. I will certainly be one of them, and I know that there are hundreds of thousands of others. We might have another referendum. It might be in my lifetime; it might not be. However, the idea that 1.6 million people can, overnight, drop their enthusiasm for and excitement about the future is not correct. I am trying to say that we can accept the result, but it will not stop our ambition for something else.

One of the really staggering things about the referendum campaign was the way in which people discovered Scotland for the first time. People who had not had the opportunity before and who had not been north of Shettleston were suddenly appearing in Caithness, Shetland and the Western Isles, and in the east, west, north and south for the first time. That raises the question, “Where should we go as a country?” The first thing that we must do is encourage people to get to know what this country is, because without really knowing and understanding Scotland, how can we see what is best for our country? The exciting thing is that people — maybe not enough of us and, for some of us, too late on this occasion — have found their place and have, beyond discovering Scotland, discovered politics and even themselves. Through this campaign, we have excited people about the possibilities of their involvement in the governance of Scotland.

There has been a great deal of talk of the Scottish Parliament having control of the health service in Scotland. The health service was a hot topic and many people in the health service agree that there are issues around the NHS budget and what we should do about that. For me, it is rather like the West Lothian question—it comes down to our being in control. The health service budget does not operate in a vacuum. Two of the biggest pressures on the health service are people being out of work — we know that work is good for health — and people feeling completely powerless in the face of welfare changes, which is making them sick. We need to have the two levers of welfare and creating employment opportunities if we are to relieve the pressure on the health service.

For me, the answer to the West Lothian question will always be independence. There is no sense in MPs from Scotland going to Westminster to vote on the English education service or the English health service — why would they do that? — but there is no way round it. I think that Westminster will turn itself inside out and tie itself up in knots trying to resolve the problem, but there is only one answer for our health, our wellbeing, the discovery of our country and allowing people to take part.

It is not that we do not care about people in Liverpool. I am sick of the argument that, for the sake of universal socialism, we should never govern Scotland. That is nonsense. We can share the work of unions across the world — as a country, we have done that. I care as much about people in Liverpool as I care about people in Bonn, in Gaza or anywhere else where there is real concern for our fellow human beings. However, the answer for us, if we are to do our best by our country, will always be that we must absolutely govern it.

My dedication to an independent Scotland will not be diminished by the outcome that was announced last Friday morning. I suggest that it is only the start of a long road — or a short road — not the end of one.

Speech: Thirsting for Justice

Jean spoke in the Labour MSP Claudia Beamish’s member’s debate on the desperate water shortages experienced in Palestine as a result of the Israeli occupation.

You can watch her speech below (start at 45:00), and read the transcript of the whole debate at TheyWorkForYou.com.

Find out more about the Thirsting For Justice campaign on Twitter and Facebook.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): I thank Claudia Beamish and John Finnie for bringing this topic for debate in the Scottish Parliament. I do not know how else we can raise awareness of the appalling situation in Palestine. How do we in Scotland effect change?

I have not been privileged to visit Palestine, but I listened to members who have had that privilege and who have been in the Gaza strip, and it seems to me that, as Alison Johnstone said, water is a basic human right that is being denied. The issue is being raised around the world by the United Nations, and yet the situation persists.

This might be slightly irrational of me, but when John Lamont suggested that the situation, in which people must live in appalling conditions, is the fault of the Government in Gaza, I wondered whether Palestinians would say that people in Scotland deserve the welfare situation that we have here because it is our Government’s fault. The issue has nothing to do with that. I feel in my heart that real injustice is being done to the Palestinian people. It might be the case that the political situation needs to be resolved, and I know that the problem in the middle east is complicated, but we are concerned with a situation that is causing people to die and families to be driven apart.

There are many visual images of the hardship that people are suffering. Books have been written and films have been made that show us the arid lands and the results of a deliberate withdrawal of resources, including water for arable lands—to feed the olive trees, for example. Water is needed to give life to the Palestinians. It is the source of life, and to deny the Palestinian people their right to clean water and sanitation is despicable.

We can contrast those images with images of the lush growth in the settlements, where there is plenty of water. Members cited the facts and figures. We heard about people having access to 70 litres as opposed to 340 litres, and we heard that in the west some of us have the luxury of access to 4,000 litres per day.

I hope that the thirsting for justice campaign has huge success and that we can reach the hearts and minds of people who care about the Palestinian people. There are Jewish organisations and Israeli people who feel that the situation should not be allowed to continue. Not everyone in Israel thinks that the situation is somehow justified or okay.

If the Scottish Parliament can do anything, I hope that we will try to unite with such people to effect change. Change for the Palestinian people might have to come as a result of Israelis talking to Israelis. However, let no one be uncertain about the feeling in this Parliament. The situation is untenable and cannot be allowed to continue.

I thank Claudia Beamish and John Finnie again for bringing this timely debate about a desperate situation that we must all try to alleviate.