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What have UK punters got that you haven’t, Jacqui Smith?

by on January 2, 2009

FOR SEVERAL years now, the UK media has focussed from time to time on the plight of “sex slaves” – young women arriving from abroad and forced to work as prostitutes.

Sometimes we are told there are thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of incarcerated, young foreign would-be nannies being multiply raped at gunpoint in the nation’s clandestine brothels.

That such appalling cases exist is clear from media headlines of sensational cases. But how extensive really is the UK’s population of victims of Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation (HTfSE)?

Does it warrant Government moves towards a permanent trade boycott of the 80,000-strong army of UK residents who, it says, make their living from prostitution, by threatening court action against millions of their British customers?

What is human trafficking?

To discuss how many trafficking victims there are in the UK, we must start by defining trafficking.

For international purposes, human trafficking is defined in Article 3 of a document known in short form as the Palermo Protocol, agreed by the UN in 2000.

The UK has ratified the protocol, but its laws (unlike, for example, those of the USA) differ markedly. Let’s compare the Palermo definition with the law covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland (as Scotland has it own law).

1. The International Protocol

Article 3 of the protocol defines human trafficking as an equation. If you carry out certain acts by a variety of different means in order to subject a person or persons to certain conditions, you are deemed a human trafficker. The means element is ignored if the subject is under 18.

So if the subject or subjects are 18 or over, at least one box under each of the three headings of acts, means and conditions must be ticked for someone to be a human trafficker. If the person trafficked is 17 or under, only a box in each of the acts or conditions areas need be ticked.

The acts are the Recruitment, Transportation, Transfer Harbouring, or Receipt of persons.

…by means of – covering adult subjects only – The threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, Abduction, Fraud, Deception, The abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, or The giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person

…in order to exploit them for [the conditions element]: prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation or forced labour, slavery or the removal of organs.

2. Law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

Whereas as we have seen other countries simply incorporated Palermo more or less word for word into their domestic law, much confusion arises both inside and outside the UK Parliament as a result of Westminster’s response to Palermo and trafficking.

In the Sexual Offences Act, 2003, the Government created a series of four clauses including three new offences under the (very unwise) heading of Trafficking, in this case for sexual offences (which is all that concerns us here). Other trafficking was dealt with separately.

The clauses, in sections 57-60, are entirely concerned with the transport of people into, around and out of the UK (excluding Scotland).

Rather typically in these matters, Parliament gilded the lily, leaving an awful lot of gilt (spelt both ways) and not much lily.

Under these clauses, it is an offence to arrange, or assist, in the movement of someone, into, around or out of the UK with the intention of using them (or enabling someone else to use them) for any of the offences in Part 1 of the Act (or a number of other offences). These include owning or managing brothels, controlling prostitutes for gain and street soliciting, but also many offences with nothing whatsoever to do with prostitution, such as having sex in a public toilet and incest.

The ludicrous outcome is that one can theoretically be imprisoned for only six months under the Act for having sex in a public lavatory, but for 14 years for knowingly “trafficking” a consenting adult there to do so, even if you were just giving a friend a lift.

More importantly to this blog, and in distinction from the Protocol, the choice of adult sex workers is ignored, so the means element is irrelevant to whether someone has been trafficked under the Act. This is the crucial distinction with international law.

Furthermore, a trafficker does not necessarily have to be acting for gain. For example, if somebody knowingly gave a lift to an adult prostitute to the brothel at which they worked, even if acting at the prostitute’s own request and for no payment, they could be said to be trafficking in UK law.

The prosecution would argue under Section 58 that they had “intentionally facilitat[ed] travel within the United Kingdom by [the prostitute], believ[ing] that another person [the brothel owner or manager] is likely to do something to or in respect of [the prostitute], after the journey, which if done will involve the commission of a relevant offence,” the offence here being the management of a brothel, or perhaps the controlling of prostitutes for gain, under Sections 53 or 55.

3. Implications

This definition difference causes endless confusion.

The general perception of trafficking in the UK media is much closer to the Palermo definition, with stories abounding involving deception, force or coercion of migrants.

Though such cases exist, people can and have been imprisoned in the UK for trafficking who have helped sex workers arrive in the country and find brothels to work in, even though the sex workers concerned were over 18, arrived intending to work as prostitutes and none of the means elements of coercion, deception etc in the Palermo definition applied.

If they were footballers being ‘trafficked’ in the transfer window instead of prostitutes, both clubs would be celebrating and the media would be happily reporting the outcome.

Before the 2003 Act, the number of persons believed trafficked into the UK for sex was officially estimated at between 142 and 1,420, these figures relating to 1998. But three years after the 2003 Act, the Home Office announced a new estimate of 4,000 in the UK at any one time in 2003.

The rationale for the first estimate was published and is still to be found on the Home Office’s research website. But the methodology behind the 4,000 figure is clouded in secrecy.

Back in 2006, no less a body than the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights failed to unearth it whilst compiling their report on Human Trafficking.

In paragraph 78, it referred to “the lack of reliable statistics on the scale of trafficking activity, be it locally, regionally or globally.”

“Home Office research from 2000 gave a widely varying estimate of between 142 and 1,420 women trafficked in to the UK in 1998,” they added. “The Home Office is currently conducting further research into UK organised crime markets. Though this has not yet been published, the Government told us that it showed that there were an estimated 4,000 victims of trafficking for prostitution in the UK during 2003 at any one time. Because the research has not yet been published, we have not been able to judge the validity of this figure.”

Three years later, the “research” upon which we are relying for the rationale behind new law still remains locked behind closed doors.

4. POOMF! Vanishéd

Meanwhile, away from the world of fanciful estimates, in actual reality, life is very different. For whenever they go out to find these ‘4,000 victims’, much like Weapons of Mass Destruction, they’re just not there.

In unprecedented moves, Britain’s 55 police forces have twice combined to locate trafficking victims and bring the perpetrators to justice. In the two operations, Pentameter and Pentameter 2, brothels were searched from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and Ulster to boot.

The first Pentameter lasted seven months in all, although the bulk of the raids on 515 premises took place between March and May, 2006. By the end, it must have been with intense disappointment that the Home Office, which had been led to anticipate 4,000 ‘sex slaves’, found itself with a mere 88.

The answer, as ever, was more resources. And so the UK Human Trafficking Centre was created in Sheffield and the boys and girls in blue were sent out to do it all over again and get it right this time. Hence Pentameter 2.

Pentameter 2 started in October 2007, was far more thorough, ran through the following nine months and included six months of “targeted” operations. Coituses were rendered interrupti from Land’s End to John O’Groats as New Labour’s version of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition raided brothels urban and rural, uphill and down dale, far and wide.

Some of its statistics look impressive, with 6,400 intelligence reports gathered, leading to 822 premises raided and 528 arrests.

Other statistics, however, were less so. Less than 100 were arrested for trafficking and out of all 528 arrests, barely 100 were charged, mostly for offences such as managing brothels and money laundering. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, it ‘rescued’ a mere 167 ‘victims’. And in the case of non-EU nationals, rescuing frequently ends in deportation.

So just 255 trafficking victims had been discovered and ‘rescued’ from the 80,000-strong prostitute population, or just under a third of 1 percent.

This is the equivalent of the population of a reasonable sized side street in an 80,000-strong city, such as Lincoln. It’s all a very long way from the Home Office’s 4,000-strong much trumpeted estimate.

What have UK punters got, Jacqui Smith, that you haven’t?

After all, ‘sex slaves’ cannot be very hard to find. We are repeatedly told that they are constantly available for anything up to 40 men a day to have sex with. Parents have to go to considerable lengths to use specialist internet programs to prevent children happening upon marketing sites for them on computer screens. George McCoy produces regional guides and even street plans of the ‘adult’ industry. Ministers have been regularly complaining that they were brazenly marketed in the personal columns of local newspapers, while remaining sotto voce about the fact the Government itself advertises sex work vacancies in local JobCentres. At times it would seem difficult to walk down the street without falling over them.

So if 40 ordinary blokes a day have no difficulty locating these ‘sex slaves’, why does the Home Office and the nation’s 55 police forces find them so elusive? What is it that UK punters have got, Jacqui Smith, that you haven’t?

Or do the 185,000 fulltime equivalent police officers in the UK suffer from learning difficulties?

The American Experience 

A great deal could, but undoubtedly won’t, be learnt from the USA. Just before the millennium, American panic over trafficking peaked. At its height, no less than 50,000 women and children – averaging 1,000 per state – were officially estimated to be trafficked into the USA every year, mostly for sex.

As in the UK, an unquestioning all-party consensus of morally outraged politicians and journalists quickly dominated the capital.

The Bush administration blanketed the country with 42 Justice Department task forces and spent over $150m, largely in grants to a plethora of spontaneously created citizens’ groups aimed at rescuing victims and imprisoning perpetrators.

In September, 2007, the Washington Post carried out an in-depth investigation into the numbers of rescued victims in seven years of looking. The national total at that stage had reached 1,362.

Some 200 a year in the whole of the USA.

Leading academics writing about the USA’s experience of this moral crusade include professors Michael Goodyear of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Ron Weitzer of George Washington University and William McDonald of Georgetown University.

If two countries as advanced as the UK and USA can be so singularly incompetent over their own trafficking estimates, one can only imagine how skewed UN and other international estimates must be.


One can only conclude that society somehow needs to believe in huge numbers of trafficking victims: that we actually require this Victorian melodrama like children need Father Christmas, wicked witches and fairies at the bottom of the garden. That somehow, deep within us, it enables us to see ourselves as the extorting villains, the lusting, vicarious punters, the hapless victims. Not that we’d ever own up to it publicly, of course. No, in front of the cameras, we’d far rather be John Wayne riding over the hill with the cavalry to put everything to rights. Or should that be Harriet? Or Jacqui?


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