Assembly’s plan for £1.3m exit scheme for sex workers ended up as ‘a helpline leaflet’

Concerns have been raised that a programme to support people coming out of prostitution has turned out to be ‘a leaflet of helpline numbers’.

Wednesday, 24th February 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Wednesday, 9th June 2021, 10:37 pm

The News Letter asked the Department of Health to detail the budget assigned to the programme and how many people it had supported five years on from its launch date.

But a spokeswoman responded that there was no budget and that the programme was launched “at a time of exceptional financial difficulty” for the NI Executive.

She responded that the programme as it has been rolled out “is not an operational programme but rather a guide” to help connect those who want to leave prostitution with pre-existing services.

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The final guide - an 18 page leaflet - covers contact details for advice on finance, housing, employment, training and the justice system.

Independent MLA Jim Wells, who was an active member of the Justice Committee which framed the legislation, was surprised at how the programme had turned out.

“I envisaged that it would be a full wrap-around programme as those exiting prostitution would have lost all income,” he said. “I certainly would have expected something more than a leaflet with a list of helpline numbers.”

Mr Wells became Health Minister for nine months in 2014, for nine months, where the support programme did come across his desk. “I did request of civil servants that it be given a significant budget.” he said.

The DoH reviewed the strategy in 2019 and received feedback from 15 stakeholders. The review concluded: “Whilst ongoing financial constraints were acknowledged, some respondents were disappointed that funding has not been allocated and action plans developed to introduce new specialist exiting services for individuals wishing to leave prostitution.”

Lord Morrow told the News Letter: “We were dubious as to the commitment of some officials within the Northern Ireland Departments to meet the commitments in the Bill and we tried to tie down those commitments as much as possible in the letter of the law but that was not possible in all aspects.  

“I do not regard the current actions by the Department of Health as a fulsome implementation of the spirit of the law as it stands.”

A spokesman for CARE NI, which helped draft the legislation, said it was “highly questionable whether the current strategy and programme of assistance is really in both the spirit and letter of the law”.

He added: “At present, its offers little more than a directory of various services that are available to address particular needs but without provision of any overarching structure pathway or support that can help a person make their way through the various services and out of prostitution.”

The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act passed by the Assembly made it an offence to buy sex in NI. The PSNI says that since it came into force in June 2015, up until the end of 2020, there have been 45 arrests – of 43 people – for the offence of Paying for Sexual Services. As a result nine people have faced 10 charges.

The Republic of Ireland also made it illegal to pay for sex, in March 2017.

PSNI Detective Inspector Mark Bell said labour exploitation and sexual exploitation are two of the most common forms of exploitation in NI.

He says there are tell-tales signs common across all forms of modern slavery;-

:: Someone who can’t produce their passport or personal documents

:: Someone who is unsure of their home address or the local area

:: Someone who is distrustful of authorities as traffickers may have told victims that police will be violent towards them

:: Someone who has no access to medical treatment

:: Someone who appears to be under the control of others or always has someone else speak on their behalf

:: An over-crowded house or flat with a regular turnover of new occupants

:: Someone who may not have cash as they don’t get to keep the money that they earn

He added: “I would urge people to visit the Human Trafficking page on PSNI’s website for more information on the signs to look out for. I would also ask people to help stop this unacceptable crime and contact us with any suspicions that they may have by calling 999 if it’s an emergency, 101 on a non-emergency or the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700. One call could end the misery for a victim who could be living next door to you.”

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