Check Against Delivery
Thank you, Sylda.
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am very pleased to be here to open this very important conference.
It is gratifying to see so many people in attendance today and I want to extend a warm welcome to each and every one of you.
I think it is crucially important that this conference is taking place. It is one element, but an essential element, of what must be a balanced, fair and comprehensive review of the law on prostitution.
Prostitution is a complex and sensitive subject and people have divergent views on how to respond to it. The subject raises a wide spectrum of issues, including issues about the causes of prostitution, sexuality, organised crime, public order, health and public safety, the exploitation of individuals including children, trafficking, and human rights, among others. When the current review of our legislation on prostitution has been completed and policy is being determined by Government, we have to be satisfied that any legislative proposals resulted from a broadly-based consultation exercise. We must also be satisfied that they are based on both human rights and evidence-informed analysis and debate.
That is why, in June, I published the Discussion Document on the Future Direction of Prostitution Legislation and announced the conference we are holding today. The discussion document was published to facilitate a public consultation process and has been referred to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. The Committee is represented here today and I would like to express my gratitude to the Chairperson, Deputy David Stanton and Members of the Committee for undertaking the public consultation element of the current review. This is well underway following a call for written submissions from interested groups and individuals, the deadline for which was 31 August. I look forward to receiving the Committee’s report later in the year when it has completed its examination of this issue.
Today’s conference brings together speakers and an audience from a wide and diverse range of backgrounds.
I am delighted and greatly appreciate that police and justice colleagues from Sweden and the Netherlands, two jurisdictions with very different approaches to addressing prostitution, have been able to join us here today. Detective Inspector Simon Haggstrom from the Prostitution Unit of the Stockholm Police Force and Mr. Jack Verbruggen from the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice have taken time out of their busy schedules to travel to Dublin and make presentations to us today. You are both very welcome. I am also pleased to welcome Mr. Paul Shellekens, Netherlands Ambassador to Ireland. Thank you, Ambassador for joining us.
I extend a warm welcome to another of our speakers who has travelled a long distance to be here. Ms. Pye Jakobsson of the Rose Alliance, Sweden, joins us from Stockholm for today’s conference.
We have several speakers from statutory and non-governmental organisations which work with or, through their work, encounter persons involved in prostitution and the sex trade. It is very important that we hear from those on the frontline and I look forward very much to presentations on behalf of Ruhama, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, the HSE, and the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland.
Given that public health and the health concerns of persons involved in prostitution are such an important part of the debate, I am particularly pleased that Dr. Derek Freedman of St James’ Hospital, Dublin and Dr. Andrea Holmes of the Galway Sexual Assault Treatment Unit will be making presentations to us today. They will be joined in this afternoon’s public health session by Ms. Linda Latham of the Women’s Health Service, HSE and Mr. Mick Quinlan of the Gay Men’s Health Service, HSE. You are all most welcome.
I am very pleased that Mr. Tom O’Malley, barrister and senior law lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Galway is among our speakers. In addition, I am delighted that Dr. Kathryn McGarry of the Department of Applied Social Studies, National University of Ireland, Maynooth and Dr. Eilis Ward, School of Political Science and Sociology, National University of Ireland, Galway will address today’s conference. I look forward to hearing your insights on the complex issues surrounding prostitution.
Our audience today includes public representatives, representatives of a wide range of non-Governmental organisations, members of the steering committee of the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland, lawyers, criminologists, academics, staff of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Probation Service, members of the medical profession, social workers, and trade union representatives. I am very pleased that today’s conference has attracted such a diverse audience. You are all most welcome and I look forward to your participation today.
The criminal law on prostitution is being reviewed mainly for the reason that the nature of prostitution in Ireland has changed in recent years. Prostitution is no longer the street-based activity it was when the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 was enacted. Since then, it is fair to say that prostitution has largely, though not exclusively, moved indoors and the development of the internet has resulted in aspects of it being substantially web based. It is important therefore, to review our current legislation to ensure it is sufficiently robust and flexible to address criminality in the environment in which prostitution operates today. It is also important to ensure that any new legislation is practical and in the public interest and has achievable desired objectives.
There is already a clear consensus on the great evils of child prostitution, and human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution. However, as I have indicated earlier, there are differing and genuinely held views on the approach the criminal law should take to other aspects of prostitution.
Before continuing, I should say that in my use of the terms "prostitute" and "sex worker", no offence is intended to anyone. Some find the term "prostitute" objectionable and prefer to use the term "sex worker". Others object to the term "sex worker" on the basis that it confers legitimacy on an activity which is unacceptable. I note however, that the term "sex worker" is used in international discourse.
As my Department’s discussion document of 22 June points out, in considering how the criminal law might address the issue of exploitation or abuse of sex workers in a changed environment, it is necessary to consider the variety of circumstances in which prostitution occurs. There is prostitution of an organised nature. This involves third parties and is exploitative to differing degrees. Some sex workers are trafficked or coerced. Others are not. Some sex workers operating in networks are coerced. Others are not. There are also sex workers operating independently and who choose, for their own reasons, to become involved in prostitution.
Our current legislation has two key objectives. Firstly, it seeks to protect society from the nuisance and public order problems associated with prostitution. Secondly, the law recognises that prostitutes are vulnerable to exploitation and a number of offences in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 are directly aimed at their protection. It is important to note that existing policy, as reflected in legislation, does not directly regulate the sale or purchase of sexual services between consenting adults. In other words, it is not illegal, in itself to sell sex. Generally, it is not illegal to purchase sex either. There is an exception to that in the offence at section 5 of the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 of knowingly soliciting or importuning a trafficked person, in any place, for the purpose of prostitution.
Against that background, I think it would be very helpful if today’s discussions could endeavour to address the following key questions:
1. Prostitution has existed since time immemorial. No society has ever succeeded in abolishing it. Is the current rationale for criminal legislation on prostitution, i.e., the protection of society from a nuisance and public order perspective and the protection of prostitutes from exploitation, therefore a sufficient basis for future legislation in this area?
2. If not, what policy objectives should underpin future legislation in this area and why?
3. How should future legislation address the variety of circumstances in which prostitution occurs?
4. How should the criminal law define "prostitution" and prostitution-related activities?
5. Should the criminal law have a role in regulating the purchase and sale of sexual services where the transaction is conducted in private between consenting adults, and, if yes, why?
6. How can the criminal law best protect the health, safety, human, civil and labour rights of sex workers, without undermining the rights of communities and society?
7. Should the criminal law criminalise those who pay for sex and can that be enforced?
8. How enforceable is a criminal law which criminalises those who pay for sex in a web based age?
9. Could a ban on prostitution be enforced and would enforcement divert Garda resources from operations targeting serious and organised crime, including human trafficking and gang-controlled prostitution?
10. Might a ban on the purchase of sexual services drive prostitution further underground and make life more dangerous for sex workers?
11. Does the availability of prostitutes or sex workers or the capacity of an individual to purchase sexual services avoid problems which might otherwise detrimentally impact on society?
12. If prostitution were to be criminalised, how should the law deal with the issue of having a criminal record for prostitution in respect of sex workers who leave prostitution and seek alternative employment?
13. What are the public health implications of any change in the law that may be introduced for sex workers/prostitutes, their customers, those who work in the health service and the wider community?
14. Is there a danger that changes in the law could act as a barrier to sex workers/ prostitutes or customers seeking essential medical healthcare.
These are among many issues raised in the discussion document but the 14 questions I have highlighted address core issues and common themes throughout the document.
As you have a long day ahead, I will let our Chairperson get on with steering the day’s proceedings. Sylda is an accomplished and highly respected former public servant and continues, despite retirement, to give willingly of her time and talents, whenever possible. Thank you, Sylda. I am most grateful to you.
Finally, I would like to put on record my gratitude to my officials for their hard work in planning and organising today’s conference. We have a very interesting programme and I have no doubt that the day will be very informative.