The PSNI yesterday dramatically withdrew their opposition to a DUP bill which aims to criminalise men who buy sex from Northern Ireland’s sex trade.
Previously the police had firmly opposed the bill, expressing concern that it would be difficult to gather evidence for prosecutions and that it could cut off important policing intelligence from women and the men who use the trade.
But yesterday Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris told the Stormont Justice Committee they had changed their mind and now had no opposition to criminalising buyers, specified in clause 6 of The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill.
Mr Harris also noted the PSNI’s ability to tackle trafficking was being undermined because of a failure by Stormont to sign up to the National Crime Agency (NCA).
“Now, five months into the NCA, we can start to really see where cracks are opening up and we are really very hopeful that we can get accountability issues resolved because we are missing out on the operational assistance that the NCA can bring,” he said.
The number of human trafficking cases in Northern Ireland has more than doubled in the past year.
Asked if the PSNI considered it significant that the only two organisations providing frontline support to women in the local sex trade both backed criminalisation of buyers, Mr Harris said they had changed their view after considering evidence presented by such witnesses, including Women’s Aid and a range of professionals and non-governmental organisations.
“On clause six no, we have no opposition,” Mr Harris said, although he said they still had some concerns about possible unintended consequences of the law.
Under the new bill, he said that “almost 100 per cent of police resources will be focused on high end risk, not where there is a major level of consent from both parties”.
Det Chief Supt Roy McComb said there was a phrase in the sex industry called “the chicken run” in which women are moved around the Province every week “to keep the market fresh”. He said “the greater number” of prostitutes in Northern Ireland are not trafficked.
But Jim Wells MLA replied with figures from PSNI Det Supt Philip Marshall, who told a local conference in 2011 that “only one to two per cent of women involved in prostitution are there through choice”.
He also challenged Mr Harris for endorsing lobbying from Lucy Smith of UglyMugs.ie, which the MLA said was a front for the Escort Ireland website and was run by convicted pimps Mark and Peter McCormick whom, he claimed, were responsible for “moving 400 trafficked women around Ireland on a weekly basis”.
He noted that a recent open letter to the PSNI was signed by Ms Smith and Laura Lee of the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), an organisation he said had as a leading member “Douglas Fox, the largest pimp in the north west of England”.
But Mr Harris said it was important to keep communication open with women in prostitution to prevent murders such as those that happened in Ipswich.
Sinn Fein’s Rosie McCorley asked if the PSNI would not back separate legislation on human trafficking and prostitution, but Mr Harris replied that they don’t write legislation. Her party colleague Raymond McCartney expressed concern that the PSNI would engage in wiretapping to gather evidence to prosecute purchasers.
But Mr Harris assured him “We can’t do that due to legislation – that is not an evidential avenue open to us.”
Justice Committee chairman Paul Givan yesterday challenged senior PSNI officers about evidence provided in private by sex trafficking survivor ‘Anna’ just before the police hearing.
The MLA had expressed concern at her report that her welfare had been a low priority for officers.
“Her comment was alarming to me, that police had not treated her as a victim, but as a source of information,” he said.
The MLA said he was concerned about support for victims and that “they be treated as victims and their needs taken care of”.
Det Chief Supt Roy McComb said he was aware of Anna’s case and said it was “very difficult to comment” on specifics. But he insisted that their approach is victim-centred.
“We would rather have an investigation fail” than fail a victim, he said. But he added that it is crucial to gather intelligence on gangs.