Labour should stand up to protect sex workers – and London can lead the way

30th January, 2016 1:22 pm

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With Keir Starmer developing the Victims Charter, Sadiq Khan putting forward his vision for London and because everyday should be a day that Labour tries to support vulnerable people, it is important to look at how Labour can support sex-workers. The World Health Organisation’s report on health and violence found that sex-workers are at high risk for both physical and sexual violence, more than this though, that only 34% of those who had suffered violence at the hands of a client reported it to police.

This needs to be addressed. For the UK the tried and tested method to improve this happened in 2006 when the Merseyside Police force classified violence against sex-workers as a hate crime. Over the years there have been campaigns to make this national. The LibDems ratifying it as a commitment at last year’s conference is progress, but more needs to be done. Labour is in a position to drive this agenda forward

The streets of Merseyside were not a safe place for sex-workers – before the decision in Liverpool to classify violence against sex-workers a hate crime, the city had the third highest murder rate of sex-workers in the UK, behind only London and Glasgow. Unlike those cities though it did not ignore this and chose to act. By making the change to classify violence against sex-workers as a hate crime the police were trained and relationships between sex-workers and the law enforcers built. It led to an increase in sex-workers reporting violence against them and a higher rate of convictions, going from one conviction in the five years before the change, to 84% in the five years following the change, for crimes against sex-workers – with a 67% conviction rate for rape. For contrast the national average conviction rate for rape is now 5.7%. This means that not only are sex-workers safer but violent actors saw justice.

The relationship between the police and sex-workers is not an easy one. While some women do choose to work in sex-work, many do not and these women often have complex issues, especially around building relationships with people who are meant to protect them. Although research in this area is unfortunately sparse, that which does exist suggests that around 70% of street sex-workers have gone through local authority care and most will have come into contact with a police officer – not all will have negative experiences but many will at the very least feel as though they have. To have a system that looks at this divide, acknowledges the issues, and seeks to build trust is imperative in making the lives of the most vulnerable in our society safer.

Violence against anyone is a crime. This is a truth universally acknowledged. But too often women, or men, who find themselves alone, battered, raped and working as a sex-worker feel as though, through the job they do, they are blamed rather than listened to. By classifying violence against sex-workers as a hate crime it refocuses where the most important crime sits. Labour has a chance to champion this. It should start from London, Sadiq should make it part of his commitment to the people of London that he will adopt the successful Merseyside Model. He would be making a commitment to all who live and work in London that everyone will be respected and protected, no matter who they are – no one should accept that violence comes as part of a package.

Ellie Groves is Editor of Anticipations, the Young Fabians quarterly journal

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