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New laws to legalise prostitution

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Highland MSP Jean Urquhart believes that existing laws leave Scotland's sex workers vulnerable to violence and abuse

A Highland MSP is proposing that brothels are legalised and laws against kerb crawling and the soliciting of sex are scrapped.

Jean Urquhart, an independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands and former SNP member, argues the moves will reduce violence and the exploitation of vulnerable women.

The controversial proposals come after human rights body Amnesty was widely criticised last month for suggesting prostitution should be decriminialised.

Urquart, who also wants to stop people who hold joint bank accounts with sex workers being automatically classed as criminals, says her proposals will also reduce coercion.

She said: “The debate about Scotland's prostitution laws has for too long been conducted as if sex workers should be pushed out of sight. They have been systematically ignored while laws which expose them to violence and stigma have been preserved or extended.

The purchase and sale of sex is currently legal, but in general, the law prevents sex workers from being able to work safely, and that must end - Nadine Stott, Scot Pep

“These proposals take on board not only the experience and concerns of sex workers, but also reflect a growing international consensus that what sex workers most need is safety and labour rights, not the risks which come from criminalisation.”

The plans have split charities campaigning on sexual health issues in Scotland.

Groups including Scot Pep, which campaigns for the rights of sex workers, HIV Scotland and the National Union of Students are backing the move. However, women’s organisations such as Scottish Women’s Aid, are taking a more cautious approach.

Nadine Stott, co-chair of Scot Pep, said: "The purchase and sale of sex is currently legal, but in general, the law prevents sex workers from being able to work safely, and that must end. There is no reason why sex work should only be permissible if a single person works alone in their flat, for example. That law leaves sex workers vulnerable to violence and exploitation, as do the current laws on street-based sex work, which also seriously hamper sex workers' ability to move onto other work.”

Currently, sex workers who work together for safety are criminalised for brothel-keeping – forcing sex workers to work alone increases their vulnerability to violence. The plans would allow up to four to work together and larger premises to operate under a license.

Supporters of the new laws also argue that scrapping the law against kerb crawling will give prostitutes more time to safely assess and agree services.

George Valiotis, chief executive HIV Scotland, said: "International organisations like Unaids and the World Health Organisation (WHO)have long called for the decriminalisation of sex work and Jean’s proposals are firmly based in that evidence.

“In 2012, the WHO called the decriminalisation of sex work a minimum global standard. Criminalisation clearly inhibits sex workers’ safety and access to services, including HIV-related services. As such, we welcome any move to follow these international and evidenced-based recommendations.”

Scottish Women’s Aid (SWA) chief executive Dr Marsha Scott said: “Fundamentally, we would welcome any proposals that make women – and anyone involved in prostitution – safer, healthier, and more likely to enjoy a full range of human rights."

However, Scott was reluctant to commit SWA to support legalising soliciting and kerb-crawling.

She added: “Any changes to the law should be strongly focused on increasing women's choices. We will need to examine the evidence supporting the bill’s proposal to scrap laws against soliciting and kerb-crawling before supporting it or any other measure put in place to support women.

“We welcome the opportunity to contribute to a less contentious, more respectful discussion about prostitution in Scotland and hope Jean Urquhart’s bill will provide that.”