UK.gov prostitution proposals caught with pants down

Pesky lack of evidence exposes evidence-based policy

It is absolutely not the position of the many organisations working on sex-related issues. From CAAN to Backlash to the IUSW to the ECP, no one is claiming prostitution as some sort of rose-tinted alternative lifestyle; it is a way of life that is a sensible economic choice for some, and the source of oppression and abuse for others.

In this context, the numbers argument is not some little thing that can be brushed under the carpet. No one supports trafficking: and if the numbers were anywhere near what the government claim, urgent action would be needed.

But if the numbers are very different, if trafficking is a rare and elusive event, then the counter-arguments from those likely to be subject to these laws need to be heard. Nicky Adams was clear: by imposing harsher and harsher regulation on sex work, the government was driving it further underground and forcing women to work in conditions that were more dangerous – not less. The government solution to an exaggerated problem will get women killed.

In this context, critics have pointed out that the government response to the Morecambe Bay disaster, in which around 20 illegal Chinese immigrants died whilst cockle-picking, was far less draconian than their response to trafficking.

The government has been accused of giving too much weight to a single source of information when it comes to sex work: the Poppy Project. One reason given for this is that research in this area is difficult and figures hard to come by.

However, there are many academics researching this field, and half a dozen - excluding Poppy - turned up at Brighton last month to debate issues of authenticity in researching this topic. In talking to The Register, a spokeswoman for Poppy claimed that they have not unduly influenced the Home Office: that their major report on trafficking Big Brothel appeared after the formulation of government policy in this area.

However, the appearance is slightly different. Poppy is quoted positively and frequently in the Home Office Consultation Paying the Price: Poppy is a recipient of several million pounds' worth of Home Office funding to support its work with trafficked women; and it regularly comes up with views that fit hand in glove with the Home Office view on this topic.

When criticised by academics for the quality of its research methods, Poppy has reacted with disdain, claiming that its work should not be invalidated just because it does not fit into a specific model of academic virtue. Poppy is also accused of being excessively litigious, preferring to reach for the lawyer’s letter to defend its results than argue the case in an open academic forum.

The issue here is not that anything improper is happening - we don't believe it is - but that in an area where the debate on figures is so sensitive and so key, debate needs to focus on the figures and methodology, and not on the supposed allegiances of those providing the information.

Given the dire consequences of getting legislation wrong in this area, perhaps a little humility on the government's part, and a pause to look at the evidence that is out there would be in order? ®




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