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In England and Wales, the sale and purchase of sexual services between consenting adults is legal.  However, various activities related to prostitution, such as soliciting, kerb crawling, brothel-keeping and various forms of exploitation, are illegal. 

The only existing criminal offence of paying for sex is based on exploitation. Section 53A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (as inserted by section 14 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009) makes it an offence for a person to pay for the sexual services of a prostitute who has been subjected to force, coercion or deception. 

The National Police Chiefs’ Council has also issued operational guidance for police forces to follow when responding to prostitution and related issues.  This acknowledges the polarised nature of existing debates on the sale and purchase of sex:

The existence of prostitution in our society is a highly emotive issue that often polarises opinion and prompts passionate debate, with a range of views and positions.  For example some people will argue that prostitution is an inherently exploitative activity and should be challenged at every level and demand a zero tolerance approach, others have a position that engaging in sex work is a matter of personal choice for individuals who need to be protected and respected by the Police Service and wider society.

A number of Committees and groups have called for the introduction of a “sex buyer law”, which would introduce a general offence of paying for sex.  Those who support such a law tend to argue that prostitution is inherently exploitative, and the criminal justice response should focus on those who create the demand for it in the first place.  Critics of these proposals argue that voluntarily engaging in sex work is a matter of choice for individuals, and that the criminal justice response should focus on protecting them in doing so.

In 2014, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade undertook an inquiry examining whether the law was effective in tackling demand and protecting the most vulnerable from exploitation.  

The report concluded:

..the law is incoherent at best and detrimental at worst. The legal settlement around prostitution sends no clear signals to women who sell sex, men who purchase it, courts and the criminal justice system, the police or local authorities.

The report added that the current law “serves to normalise the purchase and stigmatise the sale of sexual services”.  It recommended the introduction of a ‘sex buyer law’ to shift “the burden of criminality from those who are the most marginalised and vulnerable – to those that create the demand in the first place”. 

In 2016, the Home Affairs Select Committee undertook an inquiry into prostitution.  The Committee was particularly interested in whether the balance of the burden of criminality should shift to those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it. 

It examined the legislative models of prostitution in a number of other jurisdictions, which had either introduced sex buyer laws (making it illegal to purchase sex, but not to prostitute); removed controls on prostitution (decriminalisation); or legalised prostitution.

The Committee said that it could not recommend the adoption of any of the three broad legislative models it had considered, as “the evidence base for any of these changes is not yet established”.  The Committee therefore recommended that the Home Office should commission an “in-depth research study to help develop a better understanding of the current extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales”, with a report to Parliament by June 2017.

The Government published its response to the Home Affairs Committee’s report in December 2016.  The overarching theme of the Government’s response was that there is a need for a better developed evidence base in this area (as highlighted by the Committee).  The Government set out its intention to establish this evidence base before committing to any substantive policy changes.

The latest position is that the Home Office asked the South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner to commission the research referred to in the Government’s response to the Committee.  In March 2018 the Home Office announced that the University of Bristol would be leading the research and had received £150,000 of funding for the project.

Home Office minister Victoria Atkins has emphasised that the Government’s focus “remains on protecting those selling sex from harm and enabling the police to target those who exploit vulnerable people involved in prostitution”.

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