Interview With MSP Jean Urquhart

Readers, in particular those in Scotland, may have read about the recent opening of a consultation to decriminalise sex work in Scotland. This Bill, Prostitution Law Reform (Scotland) Bill, is the first stage of an attempt to pass this legislation through the Scottish Parliament. Currently, in Scotland, the issue of sex working is covered by several different pieces of legislation, and the Bill is seeking to revoke these laws to allow adult sex workers to work both in their own premises, licensed brothels and on the street. This Bill has been modeled on pioneering legislation which has been in place since 2003 in New Zealand, and differs significantly from the oft-discussed Swedish model, which criminalises the purchase of sex, but not the selling of it. Views on both sides have been hotly debated recently when the charity Amnesty recommended decriminalisation as a key aim.

The consultation has been developed by the independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands Jean Urquhart, and we are very privileged to have been given the change to interview her for this blog.

You’ve put forward a consultation regarding the legal status of sex work in Scotland and proposed something quite radical, which is that we should repeal the criminalisation of sex work in Scotland and bring in legislation which reflects the New Zealand model of practice where sex work is legal.

That’s correct. My interest grew when MSP Rhoda Grant brought in a Bill -which actually fell- to criminalise the purchase of sex and, at the time, not knowing anything about prostitution or sex work at all, I went to a meeting where Rhoda was talking about her Bill, and met some prostitutes. I found myself thinking, and common sense told me, that actually the prostitutes themselves were making a better case, and I was interested to hear their stories. When we looked at the Swedish model and, listened to the experiences of prostitutes, I realised that criminalisation will never work.

I think that’s because most times criminalisation is brought about by people who want to stop any kind of commercial sexual activity. If you accept, as I believe most people seem to, prostitution as a business that will never be stopped, that we just have to be grown up about this and tackle it head on. In the meantime, what we’re doing is encouraging violence and encouraging people to ignore their health and there’s lots of evidence that shows that. Far better that we accept that there will always be both men and women who sell sex that we have an obligation to protect their health and make it as safe as we can do.

Rhoda Grant’s Bill fell due to a lack of cross party support. Why do you think that now is the right time for Scotland to be considering something like this?

I think that since the Referendum, there’s certainly a lot more interest in everything that we do and how Scotland deals with its own situation. Recently, Edinburgh had always turned a blind eye to things, and then Police Scotland declared nationwide law enforcement and that changed things for quite a few women. I just feel that if we’re going to be a progressive country, rather than go back and take some kind of hard line for the wrong reasons, can we have a debate about the alternatives to that? Without citing the New Zealand model, we can’t have a proper debate about the Swedish model, and we should consider all options. I want people to have a view, and have the debate. It’s not about my view, about whether I consider prostitution right or wrong, moral or immoral, that’s neither here nor there. It’s about giving working men and women the same rights as other people.

This reflects the principles behind the New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act (PRA), in that the position is ethically neutral, and more aiming to protect the rights of sex workers?

That’s right.

You mentioned the importance of having a debate about this issue. This consultation at the moment, won’t lead directly to a Bill?

In time, it would be good to think that it would, but as far as taking it forward is concerned, it won’t go through in this parliamentary session. It’ll have to wait until after the election, (MSPs have the right to introduce a Member’s Bill if a final proposal has cross-party support, but only up until the beginning of June in the penultimate year of that Parliamentary session, a deadline which has since passed) but we will have moved the debate on. Having the results of the public consultation, and the arguments made for and against, it’s easier to present this to the Parliament, or have another MSP take it forward.

What are the opinions of the members of the other parties at present? Is there support for this measure?

There are a number of MPs in every party who have been supportive of the discussion. It’s impossible to say what will happen after the election, as they may, or may not, be there. I do think it’s interesting that because it’s something that’s not really talked about, and once people are used to talking about it, or meet and talk to sex workers, they begin to see things in a different light. That’s not saying that the prostitutes I’ve met are all happy at their work, that’s not the case. I meet lots of people who are not happy at their work, but people have to work.

You’ve mentioned about the importance of talking to and involving sex workers. The consultation is open to everyone, but what efforts have been taken to encourage sex workers to have a voice within it?

The work that I’ve been doing has been with Scot-PEP, which is a sex workers organisation. Certainly on social media the calls have gone out from them to say that this consultation is there and asking for a response. I fondly imagined, after the launch, and we have had a certain amount of publicity, that people would have been rushing to put forward their views, but the deadline is the 1st of December, and I’m led to believe that people usually work to a deadline, and most responses come in the last week. I am keen to talk about the Bill as much as possible, and encouraging people to learn what the Bill is about, as people will have preconceptions that this will result on prostitutes on every corner.

It’s very readable, and the appeal of this for me is that it’s practical and common sense. If you care a bit about these women, then do read it. I was very aware of the argument, and I was part of that before myself, that it’s violent against women. I’m not supporting prostitution, but it can either go on in a safe environment, or underground. We can’t make it go away.

A lot of the words of prostitutes are in this bill, and they say that it is scary. With being criminalised themselves, they have to make decisions about taking clients quickly, and if a client is violent, they know that they aren’t likely to be prosecuted for this. They are always on the edge and always vulnerable. They could be much safer. As far as being safer, we have the situation in Edinburgh now where using a condom can be used against them. Also, people aren’t flush with cash at the moment. If they are prosecuted, they have a criminal record and have to pay a fine. They have to go back to prostitution to pay the fine. We have to break that chain.

You’ve mentioned that people might think that the proposed Bill could lead to “prostitutes on every corner”. Do you think that there is the risk that whilst the people in Scotland may be supportive, that it’s not something they want to see happening close to them?

Sex work is not something that equates to red lights and women sitting in windows, although it might do in some cities. It’s something that is actually quite discreet. Already we know that illegally there are prostitues who work together, and that’s what we want to make legal. But neither they, nor their customers are keen for it to be broadcast. They’re happy with the idea that they can’t advertise. I suspect that there are flats with several women working, but very quietly.

That said, in Edinburgh, with regard to the saunas: there was no one in the streets demanding that they close prior to the Police enforced the licensing. So we already live with it, and there’s no great cry about it. I live in a rural area, but none of the politicians here, our mailbags are not full of letters of complaint about “There’s a prostitute working on my stair, what are you going to do about it?” So Scotland seems to have tolerated it very well in an unofficial way.

You mentioned about the collective working of sex workers. The situation in Scotland is that currently, a single sex worker, working from home, is working within the law, but can’t work with any others in the premises. The New Zealand legislation allows for both sex workers working within premises collectively, and owner operated licensed brothels. Are you to keen to replicate this situation in Scotland?

I think that’s what most people prefer. They’d like to go out to work, and have a safe place to work, which is the big ask. In other words, a brothel, a licensed brothel, would have to be licensed by the local council. All incomes would therefore be declared, so the tax man would be happy!

At the moment, the situation is that anyone benefiting from the earnings of prostitution is a criminal: be they partners or children. The thing is that most prostitutes are people like you and me. There’s a stigma attached to prostitution and certain stereotypes, but they are as diverse as any other group of working women, as are their clients. We need to stop stereotyping prostitutes and the people who buy sex, because they look just like our fathers, brothers and uncles. Even if we can get people to recognise this fact, that would be something.

With regard to the licensing by local authorities, what is to stop local authorities who do not agree with the change in the legislation merely passing by-laws, rejecting all licensing applications for brothels, or putting in prohibitive fees for the process of licensing? In New Zealand certain regions passed legislation banning all trade on the streets, thereby banning street-based prostitution.

We can’t really cover that in the Bill, as the Bill is an ask, and these have to be negotiated with the local authorities. I think these are other fights for other days, as it does not have the stipulations for these. We would just asked that applications meet the criteria set down by local authorities. If we were able to see as much of this law passed as possible, we can work out the details to be taken forward, or amendments. I’m not sure how New Zealand dealt with that.

In addition, New Zealand’s research picked up that about a quarter of sex workers used drugs, and research from Glasgow has suggested that the figure is higher. Is there the possibility that this could be exploited, by say, the Police, who will no longer have the power to enter brothels?

The Bill isn’t attempting to solve the problems of human trafficking, drug and alcohol addiction, or poverty. The Bill does require cooperation from the Police. Drug use is covered by other legislation, and the Police enforce that how they wish. The idea that criminalisation of the purchase of sex is a cure all for trafficking, or drug use or rape is nonsense.

You have specifically mentioned the case in Edinburgh where the change in local policy with regard to the brothels has been brought about by the Police. Did they find in New Zealand that their relationship with the Police improved after the PRA was introduced?

What’s interesting about the New Zealand model, on which the Bill is based, is that it was only passed by the chairman’s casting vote. Politicians were clearly divided. It was passed, but by one vote, on the caveat that it would be implemented immediately, but reviewed in five years. Five years later, it was reviewed and agreed to be re-reviewed in eighteen years. So that suggests that whilst it’s not perfect, and no-legislation is, but if the Police had serious issues with it, or if it wasn’t working, then this wouldn’t be the case. But I think this Bill moves us on and shows us as a progressive nation. I can’t tell you the situation exactly with regard to the relationship with the Police in New Zealand, I can’t tell you categorically, but it’s indicative of something that they are prepared to review it again in eighteen years.

Moving on, you’ve mentioned the improvements in health, and our readers obviously have an interested in the prevention of transmission of sexually transmitted disease. The New Zealand PRA made the use of condoms mandatory, with fines against clients who refuse to wear them are you intending to propose something similar?

At the moment prostitutes are panicking about this, because in Edinburgh the presence of condoms has been used as evidence against them. So the current legislation isn’t helping in encouraging prostitutes to use condoms. All of the evidence: the Lancet, in Healthier Scotland, the UN Aids program… they are all supportive of decriminalisation in terms of allowing ease of access to preventative methods, so this would seem to me to be in their favour.

The New Zealand PRA makes inspection of the licensed brothels mandatory, to check that they are meeting Health and Safety standards. Are there plans for similar measures in Scotland, will there need to be a new body for inspection created?

No, there wouldn’t need to be a new body. It would be carried out by the local authority, or by Health and Safety, in the usual way. I think that checking that a business meets the standards is the responsibility of the Local Authority.

Our readers are, as health professionals, are also interested in child protection. You’ve stipulated that our laws in Scotland regarding the issue of under-age sex work are already robust; however, are those who are under-age, and selling sex, at risk of prosecution themselves, or are they considered to victims of circumstance?

Absolutely. This was something that was really concerning me. There is a commonly held belief that children that are abused are more inclined to prostitution, or children of prostitutes are more included to prostitution, but there is no difference, but we should be entirely intolerant of those under eighteen being sex workers. The prostitutes themselves agree with this, and we do refer to this in the Bill. This Bill is for those eighteen and over, and there is zero tolerance for exploitation.

You’d mentioned about the issue of trafficking.

Amendments to current legislation with regard to trafficking, specifically in relation to prostitution, failed during current consideration. We didn’t want to conflate the issue of prostitution and trafficking, as there are many kinds of slavery. Our point, is that trafficking is not just about prostitution. We have no doubt that people are trafficked into prostitution in the UK, and those people who have trafficked should be prosecuted.

Just a final point, this Bill does cover the issue of both male and female sex workers?

Yes, there are a growing number of male sex workers, and women who buy sex from male sex workers; although we do frequently talk just about women selling sex.

For those readers who are interested in contributing to the consultation, you can find the documentation here, and details of how to respond at the end. The closing date for submissions is the 1st of December 2015.