Original URL: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/10/22/gov_proposals/
UK.gov prostitution proposals caught with pants down
Pesky lack of evidence exposes evidence-based policy
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.
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? ®