The Justice Minister for Northern Ireland says that there is no significant organised crime influence on the sex trade in Northern Ireland.
His comments come as DUP peer Lord Morrow is proposing a controversial new law which he believes will help reduce the number of women under the control of such gangs in the sex trade here.
The DUP bill, under consideration by MLAs on the Stormont Justice Committee, would criminalise men who buy sex from women in the sex trade. The DUP believes this would reduce demand for women in the sex trade here and thereby reduce the supply of trafficked women.
However, Justice Minister David Ford has now told the News Letter there is little involvement of crime gangs in the sex trade and that he is concerned the measures could put such women at greater risk.
In recent years he has created several new offences against traffickers and has helped spearhead public awareness and education campaigns on the issue.
In October Queens University academic and legal advisor to Amnesty International on the Morrow Bill, Dr Graham Ellison, told the News Letter he was sceptical about the extent of human trafficking in Northern Ireland. Checking official figures, he said there were only seven confirmed victims since figures were first published for Northern Ireland in January 2012.
However, speaking to the News Letter, Mr Ford says that since 2009 there have been 37 confirmed victims here – 26 in sexual exploitation, eight in forced labour, two in domestic servitude and one from ‘unknown’ origins.
Aside from the sex trade, he is concerned that there are also unknown Northern Ireland victims in forced labour, horticulture and seafaring.
Naomi Long MP has raised concerns that some victims rescued in Northern Ireland have been retrafficked back into the Province.
Mr Ford responded that although he is aware of concerns, he has “no formal evidence” and he is not aware of anything specific being done about it.
He accepts Lord Morrow’s bill, with serious reservations about certain parts.
“One of the first is the conflation of prostitution and human trafficking,” he told the News Letter.
“Because there is a lot of prostitution which is not trafficking and there is trafficking which is not prostitution.”
He is concerned that prosecuting a man who buys sex, an approach pioneered in Sweden over a decade ago, could leave the woman open to conspiracy charges and also put her at further risk after the prosecution.
He has not asked the Swedish authorities about their experience, but is hoping to visit there soon.
In 2011 he published a paper on prostitution which found that “prostitution and human trafficking are fundamentally linked” to such an extent that the 129-page report mentioned trafficking 231 times.
Asked if the minister’s current view that prostitution and human trafficking should be seen as separate issues represents a significant change in his stance, he replied: “We are commissioning research on the issue of prostitution just to ensure that we have got the absolutely correct information.”
The News Letter asked Mr Ford if he was still a member of the Liberal Democrats party as it has formally argued for state regulated, legalised brothels.
Mr Ford declined to say, adding that he takes his guidance from DOJ officials in the public interest.
On reports of organised crime control of the sex trade here, he said: “I am not sure that we have any evidence of significant involvement of organised crime gangs around the sex trade.”
However, he is clear that it does happen to some extent and is investigated by the Organised Crime Task Force, which he chairs.
In 2004 the European Commission published the Stockholm Plan to address concerns that trafficking gangs were infiltrating European state judicial systems.
Mr Ford responded: “I have no reason to believe that is in anyway relevant to us.”
The News Letter later supplied him with a dozen documents which appear to link several pimps to recent attempts to persuade MLAs not to criminalise men who buy sex.
A spokesman for Mr Ford replied: “This is not a matter directly for the department. The Justice Committee is holding an open, public consultation on Lord Morrow’s Bill and it is for the committee to take into account matters in relation to the bona fides and motivations of the respondents.”
The News Letter supplied the same list of documents to the PSNI.
A police spokesman responded that they “do not comment on named individuals”.
He added: “The PSNI position is clear in that we do not support the liberalisation of laws in relation to prostitution. We are striving to find better ways to tackle the serious problem of prostitution and human trafficking and are keen to be part of the wider societal debate about how we can collectively minimise harm caused by prostitution.”