A new prostitution law is vital to effectively tackle human trafficking in Northern Ireland, it has been claimed.
Lord Maurice Morrow brought a bill to the Northern Ireland Assembly on Monday which, if passed, would see men who purchase sex criminalised instead of those who sell it.
The PSNI has insisted it does not support the “liberalisation” of prostitution laws and would respect the role of the Assembly. A senior officer earlier said legalisation of prostitution may be “helpful” on certain occasions.
DUP MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Lord Morrow said: “I believe we need to go forward and criminalise those who seek to purchase sexual services. Criminalising paying for sex would simplify the current law and make it easier to secure convictions that send a clear message to traffickers.
“It seeks to reduce demand for sexual services, a majority driver for human trafficking in our province.
“It is a vital measure if we are to effectively tackle human trafficking and exploitation.”
The legislation provides that the person giving sexual services is not guilty of aiding and abetting the purchaser. A report on the operation of the offence would be submitted to the Assembly after three years.
A child victim would not be punished for crimes which were the direct consequence of trafficking. A child trafficking guardian would be established to speak up for victims.
Lord Morrow’s proposed legislation, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, contains 19 clauses updating Northern Ireland’s laws on prostitution and trafficking.
The law could set a two-year prison sentence for trafficking or slavery offences.
The peer added: “It sends a strong signal that human trafficking and slavery offences are deemed to be serious crimes. Two years is a sensible level to set a minimum sentence for such a heinous act.”
A total of 33 potential human trafficking victims in Northern Ireland were rescued in 2011/12.
Lord Morrow’s Bill is based on a 15-year-old Swedish law which criminalises anyone who pays for sex. Women’s groups and law reform lobbyists have backed change. Campaigners in the Republic of Ireland are calling for similar changes.
But some experts from Queen’s University Belfast have warned criminalising sex work could do more harm than good, driving the practice underground. They claimed Lord Morrow’s proposals were akin to cracking a nut with a sledgehammer and premised on ideological and religious beliefs.
Lord Morrow said: “I want this Assembly to lead the way, I want other countries to look with envy at our legislation and practices.
His private members’ bill is being debated in the Assembly today and will be scrutinised by a committee of MLAs before becoming law.