In their dogmatic quest to end violence against women, the Scottish Parliament is only likely to perpetuate it.
In December, the nation was shocked and saddened by the serial murder of five sex workers in Ipswich. Public attitudes had clearly evolved since Peter Sutcliffe's reign of terror – no longer were sex workers seen as merely disposable women. In the aftermath of such a horrific tragedy, it seemed perhaps we might finally have a realistic discussion of the sex industry and the laws that contribute to sex workers' vulnerability.
Instead, the Scottish Parliament has just made a U-turn on the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Bill: rejecting the original proposals, MSPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the existing laws against soliciting, and, for the first time, criminalising sex workers' clients. In other words, this will bring our legislation pretty much in line with England's.
What was most despicable was that politicians paid lip service to the Ipswich murders, even though their only 'solution' is to foster the same climate in which they occurred. The recommendations of the Expert Working Group on Prostitution, based on a year's worth of research, were scrapped. At first glance, it might sound reasonable to criminalise the punters, especially if you subscribe to the belief that all prostitution constitutes violence against women. But sex workers themselves are all too aware of the difference between a violent client and an 'ordinary decent punter', and this difference is a lot more significant to them than to those who have the privilege of pontificating about it from outside the industry. Evidence from places where clients are criminalised – such as England, Sweden and the USA – shows that the sex industry is only driven further underground. Clients, not wishing to attract police attention, are in a rush to get out of the area, leaving sex workers less time to negotiate and make a risk assessment before getting into vehicles. Police crackdowns simply mean that sex workers work longer hours in more isolated places, and with fewer punters to choose from, they can't be so picky about who to do business with, which services they're prepared to offer, or how much they're going to charge.
The focus on reducing demand has taken precedence over tackling poverty, debt, homelessness and addiction. It seems that ideology – a blanket ban in the false hope of eradicating prostitution – is more important to our leaders than a genuine concern for women's safety. And we can all rest assured that the next time a fatality occurs, they'll wring their hands again over the 'inherently' violent nature of the industry, because that's more politically safe than improving working conditions.
There's still time to contact your MSP. Visit www.scottish.parliament.uk/msp to find out who and how.