Keith Vaz chaired the government committee on sex work, but don’t let that discredit its findings [OPINION]

Tilly Grove

The Sunday Mirror reported on 4 September that Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester East and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC), has been observed hiring male escorts.

The alleged controversies are that Vaz is married to a woman, with whom he has two children; that he offered to pay for one of the escorts to use cocaine – though he stated that he would not use the drug, only requesting poppers for himself; and the fact that he was hiring the services of escorts at all.

Though it is currently legal in the UK to work as and see an escort, it is still considered to be a ‘vice’ industry, as demonstrated by The Sunday Mirror‘s coverage. Though Vaz has not broken any law, his actions may still be considered immoral by many, and probably would be even if he were not married.

Even more significantly, though, the HASC is currently in the process of reviewing laws relating to sex work. In July 2016, it released an interim report recommending that:

the Home Office should immediately change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and brothel-keeping laws allow sex workers to share premises, without losing the ability to prosecute those who use brothels to control or exploit sex workers.

This announcement was welcomed by sex worker groups including the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and the Sex Worker Open University (SWOU) at the time. On 4 September, SWOU tweeted to restate this support in the HASC findings.

Self-interest?

It is inevitable that now Vaz has been outed as a client, people will question the validity of the verdict of the interim report. Especially for those who already believe that sex work should be criminalised, it could be argued that Vaz’s position in the HASC may have influenced the decision to decriminalise acts of selling, especially relating to laws that currently outlaw brothels altogether.

But, it is crucial to remember that many sex workers have highlighted time and time again that decriminalisation is necessary for their safety. Brothel-keeping laws in particular criminalise women who wish to work together for their own safety. Though it is claimed by those who oppose decriminalisation that relaxing these laws will leave women open to exploitation from managers or ‘pimps’, it is important to note that sex workers who have difficulty with managers also find themselves unable to do anything under criminalisation, because they risk losing their income or even being arrested themselves.

The debate

As Vaz himself pointed out in his comments as chair of the committee, sex work is “a polarising subject with strong views on all sides”. Generally speaking, there are two main sides – those who support decriminalisation, and those who support criminalisation, either fully or for the client.

Proponents of the latter policy, sometimes known as the Nordic model or ‘End Demand’, include women’s organisations including Equality Now and the Fawcett Society. They argue that sex work can only ever be exploitation given that women are not currently equal in society, and are overwhelmingly sex workers usually providing services for men.

Those who call for decriminalisation, meanwhile, include sex worker groups like ECP and SWOU mentioned above, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the World Health Organisation. All argue that criminalising any aspect of the industry negatively impacts the workers, either by removing their income, forcing them into more dangerous situations to get around the impact of criminalisation on their client base, and causing them to be arrested or deported when discovered. As Amnesty International’s report into the application of the Nordic model in Norway showed in 2016, all of these things are still happening even under a model that purports to offer the most care for sex workers.

HASC ongoing

Vaz has stepped aside from his role in the HASC, to avoid his personal life overshadowing the work the committee is doing. This was the right decision. The research is still ongoing and is yet to make a judgement on which type of sex work policy it finds to be most effective. However, the interim report did have one remark in particular that signifies where it might be going:

We are not yet persuaded that the sex buyer law is effective in reducing, rather than simply displacing, demand for prostitution, or in helping the police to tackle the crime and exploitation associated with the sex industry.

It is conclusions like these that come from consulting with sex workers for whom the implication of these policies is their daily life. Ultimately, increasing sex worker safety would not be a goal of someone who was interested only in making sex workers easily accessible to themselves.

No, the HASC is and always has been attempting to do much more than that – and with Vaz out of the way, hopefully people will be able to see that.

Get Involved!

– Read the HASC report here.

– Support organisations like SWOU and ECP if you believe that decriminalising sex work is the best way to keep sex workers safe.

Featured image via Flickr/MsMornington

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