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UK.gov prostitution proposals caught with pants down

Pesky lack of evidence exposes evidence-based policy

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Comment Government proposals on prostitution and "trafficking" hit the rocks this week, as an in-depth investigation revealed a distinct lack of evidence for a supposed evidence-based policy.

This is a seriously unwelcome development, as these sections of the Policing Bill currently being debated in the Lords have already attracted dissent from Conservative and Lib Dem benches - and this news may be enough to finish them off.

Regular readers will be familiar with this lack of respect for the figures. From road traffic deaths to crime statistics, the government persistently twists the numbers for its own benefit.

In this case the issue is simple. "Trafficking" – the forced movement of individuals (mostly women) across borders and their subsequent enslavement as sex workers – is repugnant. How one deals with it, however, depends to some extent on the numbers involved. Estimates vary from a handful of women, according to some academics, to 25,000, according to one-time Minister for Europe Dennis MacShane.

Over the last few years, government has tended to favour some of the more extreme claims made by the "rescue industry", a loose grouping of women’s aid workers and Christians. One of the most influential voices in this debate – of whom more later – is the Eaves/Poppy Project, who have produced a key report on this topic.

The case against the government figures was made in coruscating depth this week by award-winning journalist Nick Davies. In two closely argued pieces in the Guardian, he showed first how the numbers had been inflated by press, charities and politicians – the press think of a number, charities quote it, ministers round it up – and second how a police operation (Pentameter 2), which had been hailed as a major success story in bringing traffickers to book had come up with just five individuals who met international definitions of this crime.

As fall-out from that journalistic tour de force continues to embarrass the government, the propaganda engine is subtly shifting gear. This week, the UK Borders Agency press released its response to the Guardian features, describing human trafficking as "an appalling crime". For once, expansive statements about numbers were largely absent.

On Newsnight, Dennis MacShane faced an onslaught from Jeremy Paxman and the singularly effective Nicky Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). In answer to the obvious question "do you now accept that the figure of 25,000 was wrong?", MacShane squirmed and blustered for all he was worth.

He said the question was "offensive". It was "childish". Besides, he had done no more than repeat in good faith what had been reported in a newspaper: the Mirror. At no time would he address the question of numbers, preferring instead to highlight the dreadfulness of "trafficking".

Already, the line is shifting to imply that "the other side" support the indefensible, setting up the straw man of some liberal pro-prostitution lobby that does not care about the rights of abused women. This will not wash - it didn't for Adams, who probably deals with more abuse in a week than MacShane sees in a year of comfortable constituency surgeries.

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