Three different witnesses at hearings on proposed new sex trade legislation last night vehemently denied claims from a DUP MLA that they had links to leading pimps.
Stormont’s Justice Committee was hearing evidence on a DUP bill which aims to reduce human trafficking by criminalising the purchase of sex.
Grainne Teggart of Amnesty International opposed the bill, saying much more research was needed about sex workers’ needs.
DUP MLA Jim Wells read from a recent press report which revealed that Amnesty’s new policy document argues in favour of legalised prostitution. But Ms Teggart said it was a draft document only and “marks the beginning of a very detailed consultation” with its members.
Mr Wells said that a leading English pimp, Douglas Fox, was a member of Amnesty who successfully had a resolution passed at Amnesty’s AGM in 2008, calling for the organisation to campaign for legalised prostitution.
“So you allowed the largest pimp in the north west of England to have input into your policy document,” he said.
Ms Teggart insisted Mr Fox’s resolution had been rejected but Mr Wells said it had been passed in amended form.
He noted an email from Amnesty NI director Patrick Corrigan in 2009 explaining Mr Fox’s role in Amnesty. But Ms Teggart insisted Mr Corrigan had not known Mr Fox was a pimp at that time.
Queen’s University academic Dr Graham Ellison asked if the DUP bill would cause “more harm than good” and said reducing the harm to women in the sex trade was “the least worst option”.
Mr Wells repeatedly pressed Dr Ellison on whether he had links with the largest prostitution website in Ireland, Escort Ireland. The MLA said it was run by convicted pimps Peter and Mark McCormick. Dr Ellison conceded that he had used data supplied by the business in his research, but insisted he did not know the McCormicks.
Lucy Smith also gave evidence on behalf of Uglymugs, which campaigns for better state protection for sex workers. She said there was “extreme stigma and hate” against sex workers here which would become worse if the bill is passed.
She accepted that to log on to the Uglymugs database on dangerous clients, users have to log into Escort Ireland. So Mr Wells claimed she was “a spokesperson for the largest prostitution website in Ireland”. Uglymugs’ director was Peter McCormick’s partner, Audrey Campbell, he added.
But Ms Smith said she spoke only for Uglymugs and could not speak for others.
Also yesterday, Rachel Moran, who sold sex for seven years in Dublin from the age of 15, told the committee that the damaging nature of the sex industry was clear. She asked: “What if women were kidnapped and forced to work as hairdressers?”
Nobody would put that experience in the same category as someone kidnapped and forced into prostitution, she argued.
She started in prostitution on the advice of her boyfriend to keep herself from being homeless, but said he profited much more from her work than she did. Aged 16, she was asked by a reporter about her life.
“I certainly did not want to tell a reporter about the most painful aspects of my life,” she said.
There is a continual threat of violence and she never met a happy woman in the sex trade in seven years, she said, although many of them put on a brave face in public. She strongly urged MLAs to back the bill in full.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) also gave their strong backing to the bill yesterday, but urged that it needed strong support in terms of education, support and counselling for people coming out of the sex trade.
Peter Bunting of ICTU said there was also “massive exploitation” in mushroom farming and agriculture along both sides of the border. He also urged a close examination of what was happening to all types of victims after they were rescued, fearing that many are simply deported into the same predicament, or worse.
Pamela Dooley of ICTU told of her personal involvement in helping rescue a slave who had been a domestic servant in the flat of an Indian consultant doctor in the Royal Victoria Hospital, and who was not allowed out of the flat for five years.
She said the woman was forced to care for the doctor’s children and had never been out of the flat.
The woman was a lower caste and considered “untouchable” by the Indian couple, she said.
Ms Dooley said the woman could speak no English except for the word “help”. She fought to get the woman’s wages owed for five years work. The victim had never been paid a penny for her labours.
Asked if criminal prosecutions were brought, Ms Dooley said the doctor fled to England before police could take action.