So should paying for sex be made illegal in Northern Ireland?
The DUP MLA Lord Morrow has included the suggestion in his Stormont private member’s bill on human trafficking. He isn’t a voice crying in the wilderness.
In Scotland, Labour MSP Rhoda Grant believes criminalising those who use prostitutes would reduce demand for their services. But her bid to get a ban fast-tracked through the Holyrood parliament was rejected in June.
South of the border, the Immigrant Council of Ireland has launched a high profile Turn Off The Red Light billboard campaign urging TDs to follow the example of the ban already in force in Sweden.
The former House of Commons leader Harriet Harman proposed outlawing paying for sex back in 2007, but the suggestion didn’t make it through Westminster.
Instead, the then Labour government pushed through a measure making it illegal to use a prostitute “controlled for another person’s gain”. This measure is already in force in Northern Ireland and pleading ignorance of the circumstances under which a prostitute is working does not count as a defence.
Lord Morrow sees outlawing prostitution as part of a William Wilberforce-type crusade against modern day slavery – his consultation has been timed to conclude in October on world anti-slavery day.
Those who object to a ban tend to counter that it will only push the “oldest profession” further underground, making those involved more vulnerable. The arguments for and against have been admirably summarised phere.
Lord Morrow says his bill will bring Northern Ireland into line with EU anti-trafficking directives, but it goes much further than the Stormont Justice department’s response to the same directives. The Justice Minister David Ford is already backing two changes to the law to criminalise trafficking someone within the UK and to enable a UK national who has been involved in trafficking someone abroad to be prosecuted in Northern Ireland.
There’s a strong consensus around the need to tackle human trafficking, exemplified by the recent creation of a Stormont all party group on the issue. Whether that consensus extends to a complete ban on paying for sex will depend on MLAs’ evaluation of the success or failure of the Swedish ban, and that will then determine whether the Morrow bill gets the all party backing normally required for a Stormont private members bill to make its way into law.