Reviewing the law on prostitution

I have previously argued the case for a review of the law on prostitution.  Successive governments have tended to shy away from dealing with the issue or arguably made the situation worse.  The law as it stands creates major problems.   It isn’t an issue that will go away and women are being murdered.

I therefore welcome the call from the Association  of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) for a review of the law.  As the ACPO spoksman, Simon Byrne, says “Some of it is frankly complicated.  We’d be keen for a dialogue to see if there’s a better way of managing the problem – whether it be ideas around criminalising some parts of it and not others.  I think it’s time for that debate.”

ACPO is in a more authoritative position than I am to make such a call.  I think the need for a review is becoming more urgent.  I know from the contributions of readers that there is a clear case for examining what happens in other countries, not least New Zealand.

I know Royal Commissions have their critics.  Harold Wilson famously observed that they are bodies that take minutes but sit for years.  Nonetheless, they can serve a valuable service, enabling a qualified body to examine an issue in detail and in public.  I have advocated a Royal Commission, or at least some body of inquiry, into our drug laws.  I think a similar body on the law on prostitution is essential.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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14 Responses to Reviewing the law on prostitution

  1. djb13 says:

    Who sits on a Royal Commission, and who commissions them (I presume the Queen doesn’t do it personally)? What powers does a RC have, and how do they operate?

    Also, what are your feelings on investigating the merits of liberalising music copyright laws? I ask for no good policy reason, but just because it may allow you to be the only Tory peer in favour of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll (or, more accurately, setting up a Royal Commission to investigate them…)

    • Lord Norton says:

      djb13: Royal Commissions are established by royal commission or warrant on the recommendation of the Cabinet. There is no set number of members. The terms of reference and the membership are announced when the Commission is set up. Typically, a Commission will comprise members drawn from a range of backgrounds, but usually with some relevance to the subject. They are usually established to consider matters of considerable public importance, often where it is important to establish a clear body of evidence. There popularlity has declined in recent decades, but there have important ones, including the Royal Commission on the Constitution, which reported in 1973. The most recent, of course, is the Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords (the Wakeham Commission)!

      I am not sure music copyright laws would be demmed sufficient for a Royal Commission, though having said that some form of inquiry (perhaps a departmental inquiry) into the whole issue of copyright may be justified.

      • djb13 says:

        So the success (or otherwise) of a Royal Commission into drugs laws really would depend on who was appointed to it? I suppose it really wouldn’t be too hard to stitch it up if the government weren’t amenable to a genuine investigation.

      • Lord Norton says:

        djb13: I think that’s true of any commission or committee. It is the case that the Government could always choose members in order to arrive at a particular conclusion, though in order to command public confidence the membership needs to be seen to be broadly drawn.

      • djb13 says:

        I suspect that the government would appoint a biased committee, simply because the newspapers would go insane if the government appointed a committee which looked like it would propose some sort of legalisation or decriminalisation.

        I can certainly see the merit in establishing a committee to produce a body of evidence (which may move the public discourse towards a better outcome), and I can also see the benefits of appointing a committee to investigate the best manner of legalisation/decriminalisation. I think that the middle-piece of the puzzle – the decision to legalise/decriminalise – is essentially a political decision, which isn’t really suitable for this sort of committee work.

      • Lord Norton says:

        djb13: Not clear what the point would be in appointing such a commission if it was chosen in order not to upset certain newspapers.

      • djb13 says:

        I guess the point that I’m unsuccessfully hacking at is that unless the government is committed to major reform of the drugs trade, or at very least, is committed to genuinely thinking about major reform of the drugs trade, a Royal Commission wouldn’t be too helpful.

        The (key to my mind) is getting the government – and the wider political class – to consider the drugs trade a ‘debate’ rather than an ‘issue’. A Royal Commission might help with that, but for it to do so would require the government to invest some political capital in the Commission (insomuch as they’ll get flak for appointing a Commission that could come up with challenging results), which if they aren’t serious about thinking about this issue clearly, isn’t going to happen.

      • Lord Norton says:

        djb13: I don’t disagree with that. A Royal Commission by itself may not achieve much and would be part of a process, deriving, as you indicate, from a recognition by Government that there is at least a need to review the evidence.

  2. Carl.H says:

    Current law concerning prostitution and brothels is not only complex but open to individual interpretation. Police do not enforce the letter of the law, thankfully, because it is unfair, dangerous and unworkable. There are many peripheral workers mainly in advertising, such as myself, that are left in a position where the law is unclear, open to interpretation and used by some Police forces wrongly. There have been cases of Police forces recently leaning on newspapers and attempting bullying tactics without care of the law.

    Like drugs prostitution will not go away, it is accepted and becoming more popular and mainstream. Most prostitutes and indeed illegal madam`s pay tax, are in touch with the authorities and attempt to be as legal as possible however they do realise that a change of just one personnel can mean they are arrested. The whole problem for brothels is that they are at the whim of individuals and that leaves scope for corruption.

    At present the illegality of brothels keep prices low, although the madam`s pay tax on earnings most places do not pay business tax. Nor do they pay for licenses and vetting as lap dance clubs would. Although attempts have been made to stop advertising by newspapers the brothels simply move to online, I myself run a successful advertising forum, blog and website for local girls. Attempts to stop this would mean it moved abroad though it would still be available in the uk. Through the advertising the authorities can view exactly what is going on and have been known to act to limit it. It is far easier to control when it is out in the open, driving the industry underground does no one any good, it will always exist. Prostitution is not as it is often portrayed where girls are controlled by men and forced into it, this is rarely the case.

    Our sex laws especially prostitution are outdated, one only has to look at the term brothel and see this could be applied to any nightclub, hotel or indeed student lodging to see this needs updating.

    Regards drugs, my stance is well known – I have always been a prohibitionist but am beginning to change my view, though maybe not to legalisation as of yet. Interesting viewing:

  3. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton and Carl H.,
    Has England specificaly ever attempted full-scale prohibition of prostitution in its history? I think the law most people abroad associate with England is the prohibition of soliciting while the practice itself was not ilegal.

    Carl H. ” Our sex laws especially prostitution are outdated, one only has to look at the term brothel and see this could be applied to any nightclub, hotel or indeed student lodging to see this needs updating.” I know that when New Orleans’ Storyville red light district destroyed it was a multi-faceted approach which effected the abolition but one of the most enduring legacies was a law which made it very legaly burdensome for three or unmarried women or women without their husband present to live in the same building in the city. In a city with roots including extended families in mansions, convents, full of nuns, sorority houses at colleges and universities, female boarding schools and quarters of town where the average man was an offshore fisherman, sailor or overnight waterman this was as close to a law outlawing the city as is often passed in a city. Clearly many variances were enacted but an enormous amount of damage and inconvenience was caused which lingered on for decades. I don’t know the legal history but a great deal of this went away after some valuable local nonsexual institutions had been destroyed. This law lasted a very long time. It seems at least yours is not enforced as you suggest it could be enforced.

    • Carl.H says:

      Hi Frank the New Orleans info is interesting and I know the USA has many conflicting areas/states which would make it a nightmare.

      The non-enforcement of the Law creates problems, I`d like to say specific authorities have tolerances to which they adhere, this is not the case. A lot of the time it can be down to individual officers opinions- I have known one brothel to be tolerated whilst another within a mile to be closed. This type of thing leads one to suspect corruption which I doubt is the case, however the ladies live in a paranoid world and their feelings are very different.

      Most Police are very good as are many in the tax authority who will run checks on girls to make sure they are legal but the rules on brothels in the main are unwritten making it appear unfair at times. Most of the houses I work for do not try to hide, via the websites they say here we are, here`s who is working, there are no illegal immigrants. Infact it is becoming harder for genuine EU girls to find work as houses become more scared of recent laws. These girls I presume will end up working the streets or alone from home in a far more dangerous environment.

      I do have contact with the girls, some married, most boyfriends lots of partners don`t know what they do. They are ordinary girls you may find living next door. The living is reasonable by all accounts and I would state very few are drug addicts, those that are, are very quickly sacked when found out. Customers don`t want girls like that and like every other business it is the consumer that has the choice. The forum and blog allows the consumer feedback and I also deal with cases of disatisfaction where I can help, I help try to make it a proper business concern without too much involvement in the illegal side. To all intents what I do is legal though I suspect if the Police wanted they`d find something in some obscure bit of law I haven`t looked at.

      To my view, I help the authorities by making all open and I help the business and so the girls who could without help be at much greater risk. The toleration from Police we have is good but it needs writing into law for everyones sake.

  4. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Carl H.,
    Thanks for the clear summary of the situation. I do understand a bit better what you are discussing.

  5. I would heartily endorse the idea of a Royal Commission in principle, and I think the caveats regarding membership are inevitable. Just as crucial, however, would be the terms of reference, unless we are to have a multiplicity of inquiries, a la Iraq.

    As in drugs, we need an emphasis on harm reduction rather than what may be a politically easier sell based on a macho perception of fighting ‘wars’ against real or perceived social ills, and the generation of yet another moral crusade. Theresa May and David Cameron may or may not be fine ministers, but Sylvester Stallones they are not.

    We need to separate sound PEER REVIEWED, evidence-based material from propaganda. The Home Office is very bad at this, which is why I think an independent body such as a Royal Commission is necessary.

    Society has moved on enormously from the days of Wolfendon, but, as you know, this area is an extremely difficult one in which to make progress.

    One important point to make is that such a body should be empowered to make recommendations on all aspects of law, ie common and civil law as well as criminal law, as all affect sex workers.

    Recent Canadian judicial developments are threatening to leave the Home Office isolated among the major English-speaking Commonwealth countries on its essentially Victorian approach in this area, and it is high time for the fresh thinking an external body could potentially inject.

  6. Carl.H says:

    “Prostitution calls in area of Southend ‘are falling’Calls to police about prostitution in part of an Essex town have fallen significantly in the past 12 months.

    Essex Police has attributed the decrease in Southend to its work with street workers and kerb crawlers.

    It received 56 calls about prostitutes working in the Ambleside Drive area in 2010, compared to 179 in 2009.”

    Is this related to the success of my enterprise in the area or merely Police work ?

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