Prostitution in Northern Ireland
Prostitution in Northern Ireland is governed by the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, which makes it illegal to pay for sex in Northern Ireland. Prior to the act coming into effect, prostitution in Northern Ireland was regulated by the same or similar laws to those in England and Wales, as it is elsewhere in the United Kingdom. At that time prostitution in Northern Ireland was legal subject to a number of restraints which controlled certain activities associated with prostitution such as soliciting, procuring, living on the proceeds of prostitution (pimping), exploitation of prostitutes, under age prostitution and keeping a brothel. However devolution provided the opportunity for separate legislation in Northern Ireland.
Nature and extent
As elsewhere, accurate figures for the extent of prostitution in Northern Ireland are difficult to ascertain given the covert nature of the activities, although the police estimated 40–100 people were working in the sex trade in 2010. As in other countries, street prostitution has declined in favour of off-street prostitution. As with much of Europe, there appears to be a fair amount of mobility of prostitutes in and out of the territory, particularly in Belfast. While exact numbers are very hard to obtain, the 2014 research suggested between 300 and 350 people working on any particular day, the majority of whom were women, with the commonest age range being 25 – 30. The researchers found that under age prostitutes were uncommon, and that most prostitutes did not start till they were of legal age.
Despite the publicity given to the issue, there has been a paucity of research on prostitution in Northern Ireland. The Department of Justice carried out its own research published in 2011, and in 2013 commissioned a research study, which was carried out by the Queen's University Belfast, and released in October 2014 (Research into Prostitution in Northern Ireland). The findings were dismissed by supporters of the Human Trafficking Bill, in particular Women's Aid and the DUP.
The legal framework is governed by Part 5 (Ss. 58–64) of the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 (S.I. 2008/1769 (N.I. 2)), as amended by the Policing and Crime Act 2009 (on 1 April 2010). These create offences for loitering or soliciting in a street or public place for the purposes of prostitution (S. 59), soliciting from a motor vehicle (kerb crawling) (S. 60), organising, advertising or recruiting into prostitution for the purposes of gain (S. 62), controlling a prostitute (S. 63) or keeping a brothel (defined as more than one person selling sexual services in a given location) (S. 64).
The Policing and Crime Act 2009 (S. 20) replaced Ss 60–61 of the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 dealing with soliciting by a new offence, S. 60 "Soliciting":
(1) It is an offence for a person in a street or public place to solicit another (B) for the purpose of obtaining B's sexual services as a prostitute.
(2) The reference to a person in a street or public place includes a person in a vehicle in a street or public place.
(3) A person guilty of an offence under this Article shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.
The Policing and Crime Act 2009 (S. 15) created a new offence by amending the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 to include S. 64A "Paying for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force etc.":
(1)A person (A) commits an offence if—
- (a)A makes or promises payment for the sexual services of a prostitute (B),
- (b)a third person (C) has engaged in exploitative conduct of a kind likely to induce or encourage B to provide the sexual services for which A has made or promised payment, and
- (c)C engaged in that conduct for or in the expectation of gain for C or another person (apart from A or B).
(2) The following are irrelevant—
- (a) where in the world the sexual services are to be provided and whether those services are provided,.
- (b) whether A is, or ought to be, aware that C has engaged in exploitative conduct.
(3) C engages in exploitative conduct if—
- (a) C uses force, threats (whether or not relating to violence) or any other form of coercion, or.
- (b) C practises any form of deception.
(4) A person guilty of an offence under this Article shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.
Since 1 June 2015, it has been a criminal offence to purchase sex in Northern Ireland, with offenders subject to a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine of £1000. Purchasing sex was criminalised as a result of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill, a private members bill introduced in the Stormont by Lord Morrow, DUP MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Minister for Social Development in June 2013. The legislation reformed the regulation of prostitution in Northern Ireland. Amongst its provisions, clause 6 made it an offence to purchase (but not sell) sex.
Justice Minister, David Ford who had earlier commissioned a study of the issue expressed his opposition to clause 6, as did the police. The commissioned research was carried out by Queen's University Belfast. The Catholic Church supported the legislation, alongside the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, many women's groups such as Women's Aid and Equality Now. Since it resembles legislation enacted in Sweden, a public debate on the merits of that law ensued, in addition to discussion as to what the state of affairs in Northern Ireland actually was. The DUP consistently backed the proposal to criminalise the purchase of sex in Northern Ireland. Despite initial scepticism, Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Traditional Unionist Voice all voted in favour of criminalisation. Only the Alliance Party, the Green Party and NI21 opposed it. The Bill appeared to have public support according to an October 2014 poll carried out by CARE.
Paying for sexual services of a person
6.—(1) The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 is amended as follows.
(2) For Article 64A (Paying for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force etc.) substitute—
“64A Paying for sexual services of a person
(1) A person (A) commits an offence if A obtains sexual services from a person (B) over the age of 18 in exchange for payment—
(a) if the payment is made or promised by A; or
(b) if the payment is made or promised by a third party.
(2) Person A guilty of an offence under this article is liable—
(a) on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale;
(b) to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or both.
(3) In paragraph (1), "payment" means any financial advantage, including the discharge of an obligation to pay or the provision of goods or services (including sexual services) gratuitously or at a discount.
(4) For the avoidance of doubt, person B is not guilty of aiding, abetting or counselling the commission of an offence under this article.
(5) Within the first year of this offence coming into effect, the Department must raise awareness of this offence.(6) The Department shall collect data to review the operation of this offence and report to the Assembly after this offence has been in effect for three years.".
The Bill passed First Reading in June 2013, and Second Reading 24 September 2013. Submissions closed on 1 November 2013. The committee reported on 10 April 2014, with members divided on clause 6. The Justice Department continued to be opposed to clause 6. Amendments were anticipated and introduced in October 2014, with the final consideration debate on 20 October. The vote on clause 6 was 81:10 to approve it. 95% of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act 2015 came into effect on royal assent, but the criminalisation of the purchase of sex did not come into effect until 1 June 2015.
Belfast Commercial Sex Workers Service
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- Northern Ireland Assembly
- Parliament of Northern Ireland
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