Please take part in my consultation on a new sex work law

Candles and messages commemorating dead sex workers: "Annette Nicholls, 29 years old, Murdered 2006, Ipswich, UK," "Fight violence, not sex workers."Dear friends,

This morning, I published a consultation, which is the first step towards bringing a new Bill before the Scottish Parliament. My proposed new law is the Prostitution Law Reform (Scotland) Bill, which I have developed with the sex-worker-led charity SCOTPEP to promote the safety and uphold the rights of people selling sex in Scotland. It seeks to reform and repeal existing laws, which criminalise activities associated with sex work, and introduce more robust safeguards against coercion and exploitation.

The consultation document includes details of my proposals, and questions that I’d like you to respond to to help develop and improve the Bill. The closing date for responses is Tuesday 1st December. To download the consultation, click here.

It is important to stress that this proposed Bill does not argue that the sex industry is free from violence and exploitation. Sex workers themselves can amply testify to the fact that both are present in the context of their work. Criminalisation itself has been recognised to create a fertile ground for human rights abuses to flourish. This proposed Bill represents a practical solution to these issues and it has been guided by what people currently selling sex say that they need. The focus, therefore, is first and foremost on safety and rights.

Sex workers’ vulnerability to violence is often treated as an argument for further criminalisation, but in fact sex workers are made vulnerable to violence by criminalisation. My proposed Bill adopts an evidenced-based approach to the issue and is grounded in an awareness of the multiple harms caused by criminalisation. It encourages the authorities in Scotland to switch their attention away from arresting and prosecuting sex workers and towards protecting them from violence.

More than ten years ago New Zealand adopted world-leading legislation, based on pragmatic policy positions supported by sex workers themselves, and this approach has since been widely recognised to have delivered substantial material benefits for sex workers and for society. My proposed Bill looks to replicate the success of the New Zealand model in Scotland: a set of laws and policies which prioritise the safety, rights and health of people currently selling sex.

The key elements of the proposed bill are:

  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.

I’m very grateful to have already received support for the Bill from HIV Scotland, NUS Scotland, the European Network of Sex Work Projects, and individual sex workers in Scotland. This consultation is your opportunity to give your views on the ideas in the proposed Bill, and to help refine and add to those ideas. I hope the consultation will generate a lively and positive discussion on how best to keep sex workers safe.

It’s essential that policy debates are led by those most affected. That’s why I have listened above all to sex workers themselves in formulating these proposals, and I am particularly keen to receive consultation responses from sex workers.

Please do download the full consultation document, and add your views and experience to this important discussion.

My hope for this process is that we can produce a Bill which will pave the way for a legislative framework which affirms and upholds the rights, safety and health of everyone who sells sex in Scotland: a piece of legislation fit for a forward-thinking and progressive nation.

Best wishes,

Jean

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Letter in the Guardian: Labour rights are the key to sex workers’ safety

Jean’s letter in the Guardian newspaper last week, responding to the campaign to criminalise the purchase of sex, a move which sex workers say would make them less safe:

Former police officer Alan Caton celebrates the criminalisation of the purchase of sex in Northern Ireland and suggests that crackdowns make sex workers safer (Letters, 1 June). However, sex workers themselves tell us the exact opposite. When the highly successful tolerance zones for street prostitution were abolished in Edinburgh, for example, sex workers reported a 95% increase in violence over 12 months.

Mr Caton further proposes criminalisation of clients as a solution to trafficking; it is hard to understand how he believes threatening the key witnesses to trafficking and coercion – the clients – with a sex-crime record if they come forward would help with investigating and prosecuting this awful crime.

There is little evidence that the criminalisation of clients even achieves its proponents’ aim of reducing demand for sex work. Following criminalisation in Sweden, police themselves have observed a sharp increase in massage parlours in Stockholm – from 90 in 2009 to 250 in 2013.

What sex workers tell us would actually protect them would be to ensure their labour rights, including the right to work in a shared premises, to eliminate stigma and discrimination against sex workers, and to decriminalise sex work.

Jean Urquhart MSP
Independent, Highlands and Islands

To find out more about issues affecting sex workers and read sex workers’ own views, visit SCOT-PEP and the Sex Worker Open University.

Charles Kennedy

Charles Kennedy with Jean Urquhart (2nd from right) at Ullapool Primary School, 1983
Charles Kennedy with Jean Urquhart (2nd from right) at Ullapool Primary School, 1983

I was so sad to learn of the death of Charles Kennedy this morning. Immediately I thought back to the general election of 1983 and his surprise victory over Conservative and Unionist MP, Hamish Gray, to the electors’ delight it has to be said. I did stand against him myself in the 2001 General Election and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. There was genuine camaraderie with all of the candidates, and little or none of the party political dislike or outright hatred that happened in some parts; maybe it was a Highlands and Islands thing. Whatever, I’m sure the other candidates would agree, Charlie was a pleasure to oppose!

Charles Kennedy at Ullapool Primary School, 1983
A very early public engagement for the new MP in 1983 was formally opening and speaking at an exhibition about educational opportunities held in Ullapool Primary School. The photographs remind us of how young he was; memory recalls how passionate about education he was.

Charlie belonged to the West Highlands and for many years the West Highlands belonged to him.

When the symptoms of his illness became more and more overt, most folk understood and recognised the problem; it never diminished their like of Charlie Kennedy, the man. His premature death will be felt by many and all of our sympathy is with his family for whom this will be especially hard to bear.

Why I voted for the Assisted Suicide Bill

Logo of "My Life, My Death, My Choice," the campaign for the Assisted Suicide Bill.Yesterday the Scottish Parliament debated the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill, which had originally been brought by our much-missed colleague Margo MacDonald and was taken on by Green MSP Patrick Harvie after she died last year. After much thought, I voted in favour of the bill, but it was defeated by 82 votes to 36 (you can find out how your other MSPs voted here).

I am very grateful to the many constituents who have contacted me about assisted suicide over the past months, both in support of and in opposition to the Bill. This is an extremely personal issue and many of those who have been in touch have been directly affected by difficult end-of-life situations. I considered my vote very carefully, and the views and experiences of everyone who has been in touch have been invaluable.

My own personal experience is of an elderly family member who, I know, suffered beyond human endurance and was longing to be relieved of pain. She was in a hospice in the last few days of her life, living from one shot of morphine to the next. There was nothing more that could be done for her, and I have never forgotten how I felt so completely useless; she was ready to die and no-one would, or could, let her.

If I was in a similar position, I would have sought help to end my life. I find it very hard to justify a situation where that help is withheld from people who desperately need it.

As Margo MacDonald herself said, we have learned a great deal about how to create the right safeguards since she first presented the Bill in 2010. The revised bill had very robust measures to ensure patients would get proper medical advice and could not be pressured into a decision by family.

Under Margo and Patrick’s proposals, the individual would have had to gain the consent of two separate doctors. Nurses and doctors who had been previously involved in the individuals’ care would also be excluded from the process of witnessing any declarations required in the process. Family members, and anyone who would benefit financially from the individual’s will, would also have been excluded from acting in the process.

I believe that these measures would prevent individuals from being pressurised by others and would ensure that the choice lies with the individual, and the individual alone.

For all these reasons, I believe legalising assistance to die remains the just and compassionate thing to do.

With a majority of Scots in favour of change, clearly we still have a lot to discuss. I had hoped that MSPs who had reservations might voted to allow the deliberations on the bill to continue, even if they expected to vote against it in the end. But although this particular bill won’t go any further, I would be very surprised if it’s the last time the issue comes before the Scottish Parliament.

You can watch the debate and read my speech below. My contribution begins at 2:22:40 on the video, and the transcript of the full debate is available on the Scottish Parliament website.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):

This Parliament has never shirked its responsibility in dealing with a number of controversial subjects that have brought about societal change. In bringing them to this chamber we hear many differing and often strong opinions, which inform and allow for the best kind of debate. As other members have done, I thank the many individuals, organisations and groups who took the time to articulate their reasons for offering their support for or objections to the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill.

I will support the motion today for various reasons. I have listened to the different contributions to this debate, all of which have been very considered and many of which have been quite powerful. My instinct is that there should be a bill of this nature. I must set aside my reasons for that and join with those who are asking for the bill to be passed, even though their instinct is that it should not, or that it should not come into law.

Agreeing the general principles of the bill today will allow for greater debate and perhaps for more public involvement in what is, for most of us, an issue about which we feel strongly. It is really not an issue that we can be uncertain about in the end, as it were, if you will excuse the pun, Presiding Officer.

My main reasons for supporting the bill are, first, for the want of choice and fairness, secondly, as an act of human kindness and compassion, and thirdly, out of respect for any individual and his or her needs and beliefs. I, too, spoke to Margo MacDonald at some length about her bill, and I am pleased to have heard her name checked so often today, because she is synonymous with the bill and her desire was to see it become law.

To an extent, the bill as drafted may still be far from perfect, and what is clear from the Health and Sport Committee report is that there are still many questions to be answered and many details to be clearly articulated and understood by everyone. On such an important issue, the devil really will be in the detail. However, I believe that all of that can and should happen.

The right of an individual to be released from life at their own request should be acknowledged as their choice, and they should be supported. It would appear that the majority of people in Scotland, if we are to believe recent reports in journals and newspapers, now broadly agree that it is a matter of choice.

Scotland has an ageing population, many of whom will suffer degenerative conditions. The debate about the quality of life and how we can live it will continue for years to come. Meantime, anyone who out of compassion and love wants to help a friend or relative to die will remain open to prosecution, and inevitably more and more people who can afford to do so will travel abroad in order to have their wishes met. That cannot be right.

I acknowledge the views of those who are of a religious faith — I am not — and they do appear, judging by my mailbox, to be the largest group opposing the bill. They have their reasons for doing so, and I can respect that. They would never consider using the permissions that the bill would allow, and that is their right, but I would ask that they respect those of a different belief. It would be very wrong if the bill were to fail today on any religious grounds.

The problem will not go away, but rather will increase, and therefore the bill is timely. There is a strong feeling across the country, I believe, that recognises that and supports the generality of the bill.

Every contribution in the chamber today has been interesting, thoughtful and considered, and the Parliament is surely here to allow the debate to continue and not to shut it down prematurely. Please, let us not shut down this important debate. I urge members to support the motion.

Jean condemns Carmichael

Jean has this afternoon condemned Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael for failing to admit to his responsibility for the now infamous leaked ‘memo’ which falsely accused First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of favouring David Cameron to be Prime Minister.

The false memo was leaked following a meeting between the Scottish First Minister and the French Ambassador. Both Ms Sturgeon and the Ambassador rejected the memo’s version of events, which said Ms Sturgeon would prefer a government led by David Cameron and stated that she did not think Ed Milliband was ‘of prime minister material’.

The memo was later found to have been leaked by the Scottish Office during the election campaign – when the Government was in purdah. Speaking at the time, the then-Scottish Secretary Mr Carmichael dismissed the leak, saying ‘These things happen from time to time.’

His admission this afternoon comes after an official Cabinet Office inquiry found that Mr Carmichael’s adviser leaked the document under direction from the Scottish Secretary.

Speaking from Shetland following Mr Carmichael’s statement, in which he described the matter as an ‘error of judgement’, Jean said:

“Mr Carmichael’s actions go far beyond a simple ‘error of judgement’ – this was a calculated and deeply cynical attempt to undermine the integrity of Scotland’s First Minister during the election campaign.

It was a deliberate attack on a fellow politician and this incident seriously calls into question Mr Carmichael’s fitness to continue as MP for Orkney and Shetland.

Politics is all about best judgement and integrity, and he has failed his constituents on both counts – by leaking the memo in the first place, and then by delaying his admission of guilt until after the election. Mr Carmichael is the Liberal Democrats’ ‘last man standing’ in Scotland – but only as a result of intentionally deceiving them about his role in this under-handed attempt to undermine Nicola Sturgeon.

Working in Shetland this afternoon I have spoken to a number of residents, and they are shocked and appalled by Mr Carmichael’s behaviour.

He has said he considers that this would be a matter which, had he still been in cabinet, would have required his resignation as a Minister. In my view, had Mr Carmichael continued to be part of the government post-election, this may never have come to light. It is exactly this kind of cover up in so many aspects of the Westminster bubble that the majority of the people of Shetland and Scotland voted against.

It is incredible that he believes he can continue to represent the constituents he has openly misled.”

Thinking differently about the economy

Oxfam Humankind IndexTomorrow, the Parliament holds its first debate on the Scottish Government’s proposed budget for the coming year. Most of the MSPs’ speeches we’ll hear will be about specific taxes or expenditures, but I hope some will take the opportunity to question whether the prevailing economic strategy as a whole is the right one.

We got an insight into how Ministers think about the economy in a Government-led debate two weeks ago entitled “Boosting the Economy”. MSPs were discussing and voting on this motion by John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution & Economy:

Motion S4M-11993: John Swinney, Perthshire North, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 06/01/2015

Boosting the Economy

That the Parliament welcomes the continued growth of Scotland’s economy and the fact that Scotland’s unemployment rate is the lowest in the UK; further welcomes the fact that, since 2007, Scottish exports have increased by a third, business research and development has risen by 29% and that the total number of registered businesses in Scotland has grown by 10%; agrees that delivering sustainable economic growth and addressing longstanding inequalities are reinforcing, and not competing, objectives, and welcomes the actions that the Scottish Government is taking to foster a supportive business environment, invest in infrastructure, support entrepreneurship, innovation and internationalisation, and to help to ensure that economic growth is characterised by income, regional and social equality.

I was hoping to speak in the debate, but I wasn’t called by the Presiding Officer – instead, here are some thoughts on what I think are two vital issues in creating an economy that works for ordinary people: small-business-friendly government procurement, and seeing past GDP figures to measure what really matters.

Human-scale government contracts

42% of private sector workers in Scotland are employed in firms with fewer than 50 employees, and that’s much higher in the Highlands and Islands:

  • Orkney: 72% (the highest in Scotland)
  • Eilean Siar: 64%
  • Shetland: 59%
  • Argyll & Bute: 57%
  • Highland: 50%
  • Moray: 48%

Small businesses are particularly essential if we’re serious about the ambitions in the last line of John’s motion. They have far lower wage inequality than big firms, and being locally-based means they don’t suck money out of regions like the Highlands and Islands and into their headquarters in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London or beyond.

Governments have sought to make public procurement contracts more accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises, with varying success. But what is notable in these efforts, for example the Scottish Government’s Suppliers’ Charter, is that the focus is always on information and process, not on the contracts themselves.

Things like simplified tender processes and adequate advertising of tenders are very welcome, but don’t help much if the job can only reasonably be fulfilled by a large firm. It would be good to see a commitment to delivering more public spending through smaller-scale projects which smaller businesses are able to deliver. That means things like encouraging schools to serve locally-produced food instead of demanding massive bulk orders; or ordering new social housing in tenders of a few houses at a time, instead of massive estates of identikit boxes.

The energy sector has particularly low small-business involvement. Perhaps there was really no alternative to that when it was about oil-fired power stations or nuclear reactors. But our renewable future can and should have a huge contribution from community-scale clean energy facilities. There’s no reason to assume we have to replace giant corporately-owned nuclear power stations with nothing but giant corporately-owned windfarms.

In general, smaller projects have more opportunity for community involvement, provide more local jobs, and have a host of other social advantages over huge contacts. But they do require a bit more work on the part of the government. I think that extra effort is worth it.

Measuring what matters

John Swinney’s motion starts with the ‘growth’ of the economy. For the Scottish Government it is ‘growth’, measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that is the most important measure of economic success or failure. That’s not surprising, because that’s also the attitude of almost every other government in the world. But they’re all wrong.

GDP is a terrible indicator of whether the economy is doing its job, which is delivering the things that people want and need, from physical goods like food and shelter to social ones like security and community.

It measures only the size of monetary transactions in the economy, regardless of what the money was spent on. That means if all of a sudden the number of car crashes doubled, GDP would tell you things were going great – all those repair bills and new cars would ‘boost the economy’. But would people actually be happier, safer, better off?

And because it only measures the bits of the economy that run on money, it pays no attention to the value of the work done by carers, stay-at-home parents, grandparents who babysit or volunteers who run sports clubs – who are all benefiting the real wellbeing of Scots as much as any paid worker.

GDP was never intended to be used as the paramount measure of economic success. Its inventor, Simon Kuznets, recognised the shortcomings I’ve mentioned, and warned that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”

I give credit to the Scottish Government for beginning to recognise more useful economic indicators, for example including them in the National Performance Framework. But the fact remains that these aren’t mentioned in John’s motion, while the GDP figures are the first clause.

Encouragingly, there are alternatives. Oxfam’s Humankind Index provides an excellent example of how we could measure the performance of the economy in terms of things that actually matter to people’s lives.

It’s difficult to imagine us achieving a country, in John’s words, “characterised by income, regional and social equality” until we make the clear decision that that equality, rather than an abstract and abused 1930s econometric, is the yardstick by which we judge our economic success or failure.

Free Microchipping Events in the Highlands

Signing the CPG's Pledge to protect Scotland's animals
Signing the CPG’s Pledge to protect Scotland’s animals

I was pleased to have a chance to catch up with the Dogs Trust in Parliament last week as part of the CPG on Animal Welfare’s exhibition. With debate continuing over the microchipping of dogs, it was great to hear that the Trust will be travelling across the Highlands offering free microchipping to anybody who’d like to have peace of mind in the unfortunate event of their dog going missing. They’re currently hoping to make it along to the following locations:

Friday 6th June

Thurso Lorry park opposite Riverside Replicas Shop KW14 8BU 9am – 12pm
Wick Riverside area next to Riverside Walk. Near Macleay Lane, Wick KW1 2pm – 5pm

Saturday 7th June

Golspie Community Centre, Golspie High School, Sutherland KW10 6RA 9am – 12pm
Dingwall Dingwall Auction Mart, Mart Road, Dingwall, Highland IV15 9PP 2pm – 4pm

Sunday 8th June

Alness West End Community Centre, Firhill, Alness IV17 0RS 10am – 3pm

Monday 9th June

Inverness Coronation Road Car Park, Merkinch, Inverness, IV3 8AD 10am – 2pm

Tuesday 10th June

Nairn The Links, Links Place, Nairn IV12 4NH 10am – 2pm

Music Therapy: Pledging My Support

Every week in Parliament, different charities, voluntary organisations and other groups have the opportunity to host a stall by the Members’ Block or the Members’ Lobby to discuss issues with MSPs. Two weeks ago, it was the turn of the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy in Scotland group to highlight the tremendous work they do to MSPs.
Music Therapy is vital for many people, whatever their condition or illness. Music Therapy helps people to take their first steps in engaging or re-engaging with the world around them, and the work of groups like Nordoff Robbins changes the lives of people with dementia, autism, learning disabilities and other complex conditions by enabling them to connect and communicate. They currently help nearly 400 people a week, and although they don’t currently have a centre in the Highlands and Islands, their clinics in Broxburn, Maryhill, Crosshill and Dundee and their work in schools, hospices and other settings across Scotland are really to be commended.
I pledged to help them in any way I can in the future- if you’d like to learn more, visit visit http://www.nordoffrobbinsscotland.org.uk or call 01506 239 578 .

Jean at the Nordoff Robbins stall in Parliament
Jean at the Nordoff Robbins stall in Parliament

Poet George Gunn on George Robertson’s ‘cataclysm’

George Gunn
Thurso poet, playwright and educator George Gunn
You might have seen George Robertson’s ridiculous doom-warning yesterday, that independence would be “cataclysmic” for the West and a boon for supposed “forces of darkness”. Here’s a brilliant and funny response from Thurso poet and playwright George Gunn:

Good Morning & Here Is The News

Good morning & here is the news
on the evening of 7th April 2014
former Labour politician George Robertson
(now Lord Naw Naw & self proclaimed prophet)
has reportedly experimented in public
with a new chemical element
recently discovered in the production
of apocalyptic scare-mongering
against the democratic process
in a small European country
of just over five million people

this element is called Pomposherous
its properties are that when it is exposed
to the cool air of reason
it becomes very unstable
& begins to smoke alarmingly
producing intense heat but strangely no light
& then eventually it combusts violently
emitting a hot gas
that is nauseous to the human senses
& fatal for most small mammals
if inhaled

last night former Labour politician George Robertson
was apprehended by authorities in New York City
for illicitly selling Pomposherous without a license
& for inciting public cataclysm

Lord Naw Naw this morning was unavailable for any serious comment