Jeremy Corbyn has said he is in favour of decriminalising prostitution. The Labour leader made his position clear during a session with students at Goldsmiths University as he went on the campaign trail for May’s election.
Corbyn is thought to have had a longstanding view in favour of decriminalising sex work but this appears to be the first time he has confirmed his position in public since becoming Labour leader.
Asked for his opinion on whether sex work should be decriminalised, he said: “I am in favour of decriminalising the sex industry. I don’t want people to be criminalised. I want to be [in] a society where we don’t automatically criminalise people. Let’s do things a bit differently and in a bit more civilised way.”
A spokesman for Corbyn would not elaborate on his views. But it is understood they are personal opinions rather than party policy.
The subject of the law around prostitution is controversial, with divisions within political parties, charities and the women’s movement about whether tougher or more relaxed legislation is the best way of protecting sex workers.
Corbyn’s position appears to chime with that of Amnesty International, which last year provoked a mixed reaction when it called for “full decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work”.
In contrast, the mood on sex work legislation in the EU appears to be moving in a different direction, after the European parliament in 2014 passed a non-binding resolution in favour of criminalising the purchase of sex, putting pressure on member states to re-evaluate their policies.
This legal framework known as the Nordic model, because of its adoption in Sweden, is largely opposed by sex trade advocacy groups because they believe it puts workers at greater risk by driving them underground.
In 2014, Northern Ireland became the first part of the UK to impose a ban on paying for sex.
Selling sex is not illegal in the rest of the UK, but certain associated activities – soliciting, kerb crawling and running a brothel – are.
A number of MPs in the Labour party are pushing for a similar option that shifts the burden of criminality to the purchaser instead of the seller of sex.
Fiona MacTaggart, a senior MP, tried to introduce an amendment criminalising the purchase of sexual services in the modern slavery bill of 2014. However, the Labour party has stopped short of endorsing it overall, with then shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper instead proposing a “review of the links between prostitution and human trafficking and sexual exploitation”.
Amid calls for the law to be updated, the House of Commons home affairs committee is examining sex work legislation, including the idea of the Nordic model.
In evidence to the committee, the Home Office says it is yet to be convinced of the case but will watch carefully how the new system works in Northern Ireland. “We have not seen unequivocal evidence that any one approach is more effective at tackling harm and exploitation, which remains our priority,” it said.
“Recent developments in Northern Ireland, where in July 2015 legislation was commenced that criminalises all purchasing of sex whilst decriminalising all selling, provides an opportunity to observe the implementation and impact of such a change.”