Jean criticises ‘knee-jerk’ call to criminalise sex work

Candles and messages commemorating dead sex workers: "Annette Nicholls, 29 years old, Murdered 2006, Ipswich, UK," "Fight violence, not sex workers."Jean has urged the Scottish Government to resist religious calls to criminalise the purchase of sex. 36 religious leaders signed a letter to the First Minister demanding Scotland adopt the ‘Swedish model’ of making buying sex a criminal offence, but sex workers say such a move would put them in more danger while doing nothing to help eradicate trafficking.

The most up-to-date study on the law in Sweden, released this week, concludes that there is no evidence that it has reduced demand, and that it has only made sex workers more isolated, vulnerable and afraid.

Jean said:

“Human trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes there is, and eradicating it will take a serious response, drawing on the best evidence. This effort to piggyback a knee-jerk, moralising reaction onto vital human trafficking legislation is deeply unhelpful.

“The ‘Swedish model’ that the churches call for in their letter cannot demonstrate any success at all in reducing trafficking. What it does do is put sex workers at greater risk of violence and sexually transmitted infections, which is why sex workers and international health organisations alike oppose it.

“What would absolutely help protect both sex workers and migrant workers from coercion and mistreatment would be measures to guarantee their labour rights. The better supported and organised both groups are, the safer they will be and the easier it will be to detect and prosecute crimes like trafficking.”

“The Justice Secretary, Michael Matheson, has offered to meet the authors of the letter to discuss the issue. I have written to him to ask that he also meet with sex workers themselves, as they are the people who have real experience of the situation and who will be those most at risk if the churches’ campaign were to succeed.”

Jean has been working with the sex-worker-led charity SCOT-PEP to understand the reality of sex work in Scotland, and press for changes that will genuinely protect sex workers. The co-chair of SCOT-PEP said earlier:

“If the Church of Scotland think that this law will reduce trafficking, they’ve been misinformed. The Swedish government cannot show a reduction in trafficking – but sex workers in Sweden are more vulnerable, isolated and afraid. The vast majority of trafficking happens into the agricultural industry and domestic service, and yet no one is recommending criminalising the purchase of groceries or the hiring of a cleaner. All migrant workers need their labour rights protected: that is what would genuinely fight exploitation, not more failed criminalisation that drives people away from support and services.”

Emma, a former sex worker, added:

“As a former sex worker living with HIV, I am saddened at this Church of Scotland call. In the 80s and 90s the Church were at the forefront of new approaches to harm reduction, drug use and HIV. They funded the work of Shiva, a street based sex work project. I always considered that they were our allies in a fight against HIV discrimination and violence, and we would love the opportunity to sit down with you and talk. These laws would put another generation of sex workers at risk of the violence, HIV and stigma that the church helped us climb out of”.

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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.

Jean urges decriminalisation for sex workers’ safety

Candles and messages commemorating dead sex workers: "Annette Nicholls, 29 years old, Murdered 2006, Ipswich, UK," "Fight violence, not sex workers."Jean has criticised Edinburgh’s decision to delicense its saunas and massage parlours, and called for a debate on decriminalising sex work in order to improve safety and decrease stigma.

Her intervention has been praised by the sex-worker-led charity SCOT-PEP as “courageous”.

In a motion to the Scottish Parliament, Jean praised Edinburgh’s formerly strong record of harm reduction policies on sex work, and urged the capital to reconsider.

Edinburgh has been unusual in granting Public Entertainment Licenses to sex work premises, a policy which improved health and safety and was strongly supported by sex workers themselves. Until 2001, Edinburgh also recognised tolerance zones for street prostitution.

Jean highlighted calls from sex workers’ organisations for full decriminalisation, as practiced in New Zealand since 2003. Kiwi sex workers now report much greater safety and wellbeing. Decriminalisation is supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Jean said:

“Our first duty in dealing with sex work must be the protection of the safety and dignity of sex workers. Sex work can be dangerous; but those dangers are exacerbated, or in many cases even created, by criminalisation.

“In Edinburgh’s case, delicensing will eventually lead to saunas being forced out of business by raids and arrests – which is presumably its intention. This will force sex workers into more dangerous work such as street prostitution or working alone from home.

“This is a continuation of a concerted shift against harm reduction in Edinburgh. One of the changes already made, in 2001, has been to abandon the use of tolerance zones for street prostitution. A subsequent crackdown on kerb-crawling in 2007 led to sex workers reporting a 95% increase in incidents of violence over 12 months.

“Edinburgh’s management of sex work was a success story. But instead of the rest of Scotland learning from their experience, we are seeing failed policies being pushed on the capital.

“Both the hard evidence and the testimony of sex workers themselves tell us that fully decriminalising sex work, as in New Zealand, is the best way to protect sex workers and their communities. This would allow co-operation instead of conflict with the authorities, improve the health and safety of sex workers, and create the best possible environment for the eradication of coercion, trafficking and underage sex work.”

The sex workers’ charity SCOT-PEP said:

“SCOT-PEP warmly welcomes Jean Urquhart’s motion on Edinburgh city council’s sauna decision, and on the wider legal context of sex work in Scotland. It is heartening to see an MSP focus on harm reduction rather than on ideology, and back a policy – decriminalisation – that is supported by evidence, and international agencies including UNAIDS and the World Health Organization.

“We are delighted that Jean’s motion notes that decriminalisation is the legal framework called for by sex workers in Scotland, and around the world. For too long, debates about sex work have been dominated by policymakers who seek to dismiss the voices of those most affected. Sex workers are the experts on the legal framework that best enables them to work safely, and to access health, human rights, and justice.

“We have long fought for policy that centres safety, human rights and evidence, and are pleased to see that, in a context for sex workers in Scotland that has recently brought setbacks, we nonetheless have courageous politicians”.

If Jean’s motion gains the support of MSPs from three of the five Holyrood party groups, including Jean’s Independent/Green group, it will be eligible for a debate in the Parliament. If you support a debate on the issue, please consider emailing, writing or phoning your MSP and asking them to sign the motion.

Jean’s motion to the Scottish Parliament:

Motion Number: S4M-08986
Lodged By: Jean Urquhart
Date Lodged: 06/02/2014

Title: Criminalisation of Sex Work

Motion Text:

That the Parliament regrets the decision of the Regulatory Committee of Edinburgh City Council, on 3 February 2014, to remove massage parlours and saunas from the Public Entertainment Licence regime; considers that this decision represents a move toward deeper criminalisation of sex work and sex workers; believes that such criminalisation exposes sex workers to greater danger and stigma; further believes that Edinburgh’s previous sex work policies, including tolerance zones for street prostitution and licensed saunas, demonstrated success in reducing harm, and notes calls for Edinburgh City Council to reconsider this decision and the Scottish Government to give consideration to policies to decriminalise sex work, as it believes has been requested by sex workers themselves.

‘Outside the Box’ – art by Inverness prisoners

I had the pleasure of seeing Out of the Box at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery last Thursday. The show is an exhibition of art created by prisoners taking part in Fife College learning programmes at HMP Inverness over the past year.

One prisoner who took part in the exhibition said:

“Prison can be an emotional and daunting experience, with some prisoners feeling like worthless failures who have no hope of going anywhere in life. The education department offers prisoners both the support and tools they’ll need to change their lives, in an attempt at, hopefully, changing these thoughts and feelings.”

I think that captures something important – that the dehumanisation of prisoners that is apparently so popular among some politicians and tabloid columnists is not only revolting in its own right, but also stands in the way of prisoners rebuilding their lives and, in so doing, reducing reoffending.

My favourite painting was the G4S van plunging into a lake – a rejection of just the kind of industrialised, for-profit incarceration to which this project is diametrically opposed.

Outside the Box is at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, Castle Wynd, IV2 3EB until Saturday 15th February 2014.
Please call 01463 237 114 to check availability, as part of the exhibition is in a room that is used for other events.