Decriminalise prostitution to improve safety for sex workers, says Leeds academic

6 January 2016.......    Prostitute working in in Leeds red light district in Holbeck. Image posed by models. Picture Tony Johnson
6 January 2016....... Prostitute working in in Leeds red light district in Holbeck. Image posed by models. Picture Tony Johnson
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MPs are to launch a major inquiry into how sex workers are treated in UK law, days after it emerged that a managed area for prostitution in Leeds was to be made permanent.

The Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry will examine whether criminal action should still be focused most heavily on those who sell sex, rather than those who buy it.

It will also look at what impact the Modern Slavery Act 2015 has had to date on trafficking for purposes of prostitution and whether further measures are needed to help those involved in prostitution to leave it.

This week, the YEP revealed that a ground-breaking “managed area” for street prostitution in Leeds has been made permanent after a 12-month pilot – despite the alleged murder of a sex worker.

The controversial scheme, which allows sex workers to ply their trade in a designated part of Holbeck from 7pm to 7am, will continue indefinitely.

City chiefs are considering how the scheme could be modified, including a recommendation that the hours women are allowed to work are extended.

The news came less than three weeks after 21-year-old Daria Pionko was found with fatal injuries on Springwell Road, within the managed area. A 24-year-old man is awaiting trial for her murder.

Professor Teela Sanders of the University of Leeds, who carried out an evaluation of the Holbeck scheme, said shifting criminal action onto those who pay for sex risked driving the activities underground.

She said: “We have had two decades of reviewing, legislating, guidelines and various new criminal justice tools from the New Labour government specifically and none of them have prioritised the safety of sex workers and the broader issues around human rights to protection.

“There have been various consultations and parliamentary groups in recent years including attempts to make it a crime to pay for sex in 2009 and the more recent 2014 report Shifting the Burden from the All Party Parliamentary Group - none of these had the safety of sex workers at the fore.

“Whilst the Government looks to the law as a means to manage commercial sex, violence and abuse will continue for street sex workers.

“We know from the Swedish model that make it a crime to pay for sex only makes the context unsafe for women, driving activities underground.

“Until there are some robust and responsible political debates about alternatives to criminalising anyone in the sex trade who are consenting adults, the policy or everyday experiences of sex workers will not change.

“Decriminalisation is a model which is evidenced as being safer, more respectful of human rights and a system which designs out violence and exploitation. These are the models we should be discussing, not going over tired old ground.”