The PSNI officer who leads the organisation’s response to human trafficking has called for a public debate on how to tackle the problem, including the possibility of legalising prostitution in Northern Ireland.
Chief Supt Philip Marshall made the comments to the News Letter yesterday in the midst of intense debate about a proposed new law from Lord Morrow which would, if passed by the assembly, see men who purchase sex being criminalised.
Mr Marshall said: “You will have a wide range of commentators who say prostitution should be legalised and regulated and that we should look after the rights and welfare of those individuals. It is a matter that should be the subject of further public debate.”
He said legalisation of prostitution “may be helpful on certain occasions” and adds: “There needs to be wider social debate and understanding about what prostitution actually is in Northern Ireland before we consider what the right policy might be.”
Both he and the current head of PSNI Organised Crime Branch, Det Chief Supt Roy McComb, said 98 people have been found as potential human trafficking victims in Northern Ireland from 2009-12 and a further eight this year. Mr McComb said “the majority of victims are in the sexual exploitation category” although there are also victims of forced labour.
Mr Marshall said a “limited” study of 30,000 people in the English and Welsh sex industry in 2009 estimated that 30-40pc of them “may have some indicators of human trafficking”, though figures for Northern Ireland are “very difficult”.
Mr McComb said they have met people who are voluntarily prostitutes. “But our wider experience is that people we are finding involved in brothels are not there because they choose to be there”. A “significant number” do not even know what country they are in.
Lord Morrow’s bill is based on a Swedish law enacted in 1999 which criminalises anyone who purchases sex. Campaigners say it has brought over 3,000 convictions. The Swedish police told the News Letter it has been an “excellent tool” in combatting human trafficking.
Mr McComb urged caution about the idea of transferring legislation from Sweden and assuming it will work here. The Swedish police reportedly use email and phone records and the presence of suspects in brothels to convict men of buying sex.
Mr Marshall said he has met police in Sweden and that they have different investigation methods.
“What we could be down to is trying to gather evidence on what has been a private transaction between two consenting individuals in a private location,” he said.
They were not convinced by the Swedish law, which ignores the issue of consent but treats the transaction itself is criminal.
“Well, that is a matter between the Swedish law and the Swedish people and the Swedish legislators and that is a matter for them,” Mr McComb said.
“That is not an issue for us in Northern Ireland.”
They rejected claims from some MLAs last week that media comments from Mr Marshall about the bill strayed outside policing and into legislating.
“If we are the professional body expected to enforce the criminal law then it is absolutely right for us to be able to respond to the proposed criminal law,” Mr McComb said yesterday, adding that police will enforce whatever law MLAs might pass. Although the police did not make their own submission to the bill consultation, they did contribute to the Department of Justice’s, as is normal procedure, he added.
Meanwhile, a former head of Organised Crime Branch, Norman Baxter, has claimed that a coalition of interests opposed to Lord Morrow’s proposed law have begun “a carefully orchestrated media strategy” to undermine it.