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Home Office unites feminists in condemnation of itself

by on February 1, 2009
IT WAS a collection of people one would not normally put together unless one aimed to start World War III.

In the one corner were representatives of the English Collective of Prostitutes  and the UK Network of Sex Projects, in the other the Poppy Project  (which rescues London’s ‘sex slaves’) and ‘Object’  – the Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells etc’s campaign against lap dancing clubs. All of them females, I imagine all feminists, together epitomising the division in feminism over something the rest of the world knows as prostitution, but which, even with UN help, they could not possibly get as far as even agreeing the terminology for.

That was the scene for the first session of the parliamentary committee inquiring into the  Home Office’s latest perpetration, known as the Policing and Crime Bill.

What on earth could the fanatically prohibitionist Poppy and Object, and the decriminalist, some would say liberal, UKNSWP and ECP, conceivably agree about? Suddenly, peace in the Middle East looked easy, Obama and Bush shaking hands with Bin Laden simple (well, relatively speaking).

Astonishingly, there was something. Two things in fact. The Home Office’s plan to force street prostitutes to undergo compulsory rehabilitation sessions on pain of… of… well, whatever else can be dreamt up – including prison – is a disaster waiting to happen, all agreed. And its provision of aid to help them kick their drug habits is woeful.

Which really makes one wonder if the Home Office has its right and proper place in the order of things, and that if it could just swap places with the Foreign Office for awhile, how many sworn and bitter enemies on this planet may suddenly find themselves shaking hands, if only over how utterly barmy and off-the-wall the UK Home Office is. Who knows what feuds would end and what international fraternity could thereby break out?

Despite this display of unprecedented unanimity, back in the committee room, the Foreign Office’s diplomatic skills were still at a premium.

At stake, for those who don’t know, is merely the potential criminalisation (in the hopefully unlikely event of any police force being sufficiently criminally insane to take the new law seriously) of between four and five million UK men who employ prostitutes (oops, sex workers – oops, prostituted women – oops, women bought in prostitution – oops, call girls, escorts – oops, male and transgender sex workers, etc etc. You know who I mean).

The punters (oops – clients) would face £1,000 fines should their hired help turn out to be ‘controlled for gain’ by a third party, whether they were aware of it or not.

‘Kerb-crawling’ – an offence unknown on the continental mainland (where men are said to be not only quite common but – horror of horrors – widely tolerated) – will result in immediate penalties (in the past the crawling has had to be ‘persistent’). Brothels will be subject to three month closure orders lest prostitutes annoyingly return and survive in them instead of doing the decent thing and being properly slain on the streets to keep the tabloids busy. Trials by fire, water and brimstone have presumably been deferred to next week’s criminal justice bill by a government that has already committed nearly one offence to the statute book for every day in office.

Oh, and local councils will get more control over lap dance clubs. Now, a forward thinking council (should one exist) would declare ‘lap dance land’ pronto – but that’s for another blog.

Back to the match, and it was Bury St Edmonds’ David Ruffley MP who opened the batting for the MPs. How many prostitutes were controlled for gain, he innocently asked the ECP’s Niki Adams.

Whereupon, of course, we immediately hit a definition problem. Slough’s misandryist Glaswegian MP, Fiona Mactaggart, had reassured the Commons on the Second Reading that ‘controlled for gain’ had been clearly defined in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and a court case, R v Massey. It hadn’t, of course. There is no definition of ‘controlled’ in the controlling for gain section of the SOA 2003 (you don’t really expect the Home Office to have a clue what it’s writing about do you?), though it does define ‘gain’ astonishingly widely – including sexual services or even the goodwill of someone if it ‘appears likely’ to bring financial advantage at some point in the future. And as for R v Massey that established nothing except that control does not require compulsion, coercion or force – certainly not what it does require.

“The exploitation of a prostitute for financial gain was the broad mischief at which the section was aimed, whether or not intimidation was involved,” said the Times Law Report on the Court of Appeal decision. Which, in practical terms, is about as useful as a paraplegic left-arm spinner in the FA Cup final, and rendered the change from the old ‘living off immoral earnings’ law pointless. Among those who financially gain from the exploits of prostitutes are water, gas and electricity companies, supermarkets and the Government itself through the Inland Revenue – prostitution is taxable – and therefore arguably the very judges themselves.

And what of the Jacqie Smiths, Vernon Coakers, Alan Campbells and the boys and girls in blue in the UK’s 55 police forces? Would they allow prostitution to run uncontrolled in their areas? QL: What do they do instead, then? A: Contol it. Q: Are they paid? A: quite handsomely – for controlling prostitution among other things.

Ironically, the difference is that, whereas the agency and brothel ‘controllers’ and even one or two of the better street pimps actually provide a network that helps keep sex workers safe, many academics agree that both past and present involvements of the Criminal Justice System spell little but danger for sex workers in practice. Like the present Bill, the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act aimed to make women safer. It did this by rendering brothels illegal, causing a massive surge in street prostitution and creating ideal conditions for Jack the Ripper’s famous 1888 Whitechapel murders. Some safety.

Back to the match and here is Niki Adams’ response for the working girls (and boys):

‘Controlled for gain’ has a wide definition. People working in the sex industry are no more likely to be controlled for gain than any other worker in the UK. The definition that Fiona Mactaggart said the Government would use…was that they would require compulsion; but….in fact would include any woman working in any situation where there was a work rota; workmates could be criminalised under it.

We have seen prosecutions of women; we are actually working with a woman at the moment whose case is coming to court. She is the mother of four young children, who was working with another woman in premises, and is being prosecuted for controlling.

We have, here, some women from Soho who work in flats with maids. They were raided in December and threatened by the police with being prosecuted for controlling, when they are the first line of defence for working women against violent attacks and exploitation.

So bereft of a definition of ‘controlling’ is the law that it had the R v Massey Court of Appeal judges reaching for their Concise Oxford dictionaries (now you would think that with their dosh, they could afford the full grown-up version, wouldn’t you?) 

For Jacqie Smith, of course, it all works out splendidly. Not only will a punter not know whether the lady (or gent) of his choice is controlled or not, but they – and everybody else – will not know what it is they don’t know, either, unless and until the courts come up with what on earth Parliament is talking about instead of what it isn’t. For the Home Office, a repeat of the great “likely to deprave and corrupt” obscenity wheeze is in site, when juries got to make up the law as they went along.

Meanwhile, all manner of possibilities beckon the incredibly creative minds of New Stasi’s criminal law-makers. After all, if a prostitute’s not controlled, she’s presumably uncontrolled, and an uncontrolled prostitute sounds like a traffic hazard to me, throwing up possibilities like ‘losing control of a prostitute in a built-up area’ etc etc.

But what about the Billies of this world? Billy, I should explain, was a young, promising student musician in the USA many, many years ago, earning his pin money operating a switchboard in a brothel where Tracy Quan, one of my New York email buddies – now a novelist and Guardian columnist – worked on the game back in her teens (she’s since quit prostitution but works hard helping her Prostitutes of New York – PONY – network).

The working girls, it seems, had an affectionate relationship with Billy, with his nickel and dime job on the switchboard. Until one day when the brothel got busted, and the first Billy’s parents discovered was when he was prosecuted – as a ‘pimp.’

With permanent paranoia fixed on the exploitation of women in the UK, the Billies of our nation lie forgotten, trampled beneath the herd of manic damsel-supposedly-in-distress rescuers.  For the heinous offence of assisting in the management of a brothel, the UK Parliament allows its judiciary to lock away the Billies of this country for an astonishing seven years (increased 14-fold since New Stasi’s election in 1997). If he found himself ‘controlling’ – as someone handling a switchboard may very well do in booking clients with sex workers, avoiding double bookings etc, that could be another seven years.

By contrast, the 80 per cent of UK prostitutes who work in brothels face no penalty whatsoever – it is not an offence to work as a prostitute in a brothel, only to own, manage or assist in the management of one. Bang goes Home Office minister Vernon Coaker’s oft-quoted patronising line that we should be blaming the chaps when we’ve been blaming the lasses all along.

Wrote Tracy:

You know, the last time I saw Billy, he was sitting in the telephone room, and we (the working girls) were told we could leave. I heard the cops say to him “you’re all alone now,” and that is the last I have seen him. We all scattered and lost contact because that is what very often happens when the police close a business. I lost touch with a lot of people because two escort agencies I worked for were busted…. it makes me feel sad, sometimes.

It makes me sad also to think that he may never know that some of us who were in the other room still think about him, or that we might wonder what became of him. We were all so young and selfish then, it would be easy for him to think that we forgot all about him. He may never know that his predicament is discussed, some years later, with compassion …that his story is part of an international conversation. Would he care? Maybe he would roll his eyes at the futility of it all. But maybe he would be touched or pleasantly surprised.

And what about indirect escort agency workers, fulfilling a similar role to the ‘controller’ of a taxi cab firm, letting the girls know where the guys are, very likely also not the best paid job in the world. Controlling for gain? Very likely.

But back to the match.

Mr. Ruffley (still to Niki Adams): You are confirming that the definition [of controlling] is very wide, and can catch a large number of people?

Niki Adams:

Yes, and already it is being used in that way, so what Fiona Mactaggart said in the Second Reading debate in fact is not true; we have already seen prosecutions, and prosecutions for controlling under the 2003 Act have actually gone up significantly since 2003 when the definition was changed. The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 has enabled the police to claim 25 per cent. of the money, assets and other resources collected at the time of arrest and after prosecution, and we think the Act is a big motivation for the increase in raids and prosecutions in this area.

Actually, the bounty hunting nature of the police privateers may have played a part, though the largely fruitless Pentameter raids for trafficking victims seems to have had a major role in the clampdown on brothels.

Mr. Ruffley: “…it has been suggested…that [the criminalisation of punters] would not be easy to enforce…because quite a lot of women who were being forced into this industry would not give evidence…against a pimp or someone who was controlling them. They would be scared of being brutalised or attacked if they gave evidence to the police or the Crown Prosecution Service. From what you are saying, that does not seem to be so much of an issue….

Niki Adams:

Yes, that is very much the case, because it is being used against people who are involved in consensual sex. There is not any force and coercion present, but those are the people who are primarily being prosecuted under both the controlling legislation and also, unfortunately, under the trafficking legislation, which, in the UK, also does not require force and coercion to be proved.

A woman in our network who is from Brazil and who has been here for 25 years running premises that everyone accepted were a safe and good environment for women to work in was prosecuted for trafficking and sentenced to three years in prison. She nearly lost custody of her young son, and is now facing deportation. She had her life savings, her house, her car and all her possessions confiscated. The law is being used in that way to prosecute people who are involved in consenting sex.

The figures that have been used to justify the proposals-the figures on trafficking-are false. They have been discredited in many academic studies including on a recent radio 4 programme, where they showed that the figure that was widely being used-that 80 per cent of women working in the sex industry in the UK are trafficked-actually came from POPPY project research that found that 80 per cent of women in the sex industry are immigrant women. There is a very big difference between being foreign and being forced, which is what the programme concluded.

We wuz misquoted, basically, was the Poppy response, but it took Hilary Kinnell of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects to attempt the now Herculean task of setting the record straight over statistics and point out that all these figures are peculiar to London and the percentage of migrant workers among prostitutes nationally are far lower (national average 37% and the lowest in western Europe according to TAMPEP).

She – like many – sees the Bill’s passage as yet another giant leap backwards by a Government department which, alas, can now but dream of those halcyon days when it achieved the dizzy heights of  being merely, in the words of Charles Clarke, unfit for purpose. 

Four committee meetings in and the Government does seem to have finally conceded that a proper definition of controlling for gain might, just might, be worth looking at, SIX YEARS after the Sexual Offences Act and heavens knows how many convictions of people for providing the safest alternatives to the streets for vulnerable sex workers.

Representatives of the Bar Council have gone off to ponder the question.

So what do you think?

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From → Legislation

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