Ex-justice minister Claire Sugden has cautioned her former department to ensure any new research it commissions on the sex trade is ‘independent’.
Ms Sugden was speaking after the screening of ‘Doing Money’ by the BBC. The drama is based on the life of sex trafficking survivor ‘Ana,’ who escaped her captors in NI and successfully campaigned to outlaw the purchase of sex here.
Before it became law in 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) commissioned German academic Dr Susann Huschke to research the possible impact of the offence. But Women’s Aid, which sat on the research advisory committee, resigned in protest at what it claimed was the “shocking” report which was produced.
In January Dr Huschke contacted DOJ about compulsory follow-up research, which it is commissioning to review the impact of the offence. But Ms Sugden has responded that she thought it would be “both inappropriate and biased” to seek similar research from those who “informed the original debate and were commissioned by a previous political administration”.
Noting Women’s Aid’s severe criticism of the previous report, she said that “all” stakeholders interested in the issue of human trafficking should be invited to comment on the issue. “I would, however, caution the Department when commissioning their own research to ensure it is entirely independent, transparent and sympathetic to all contributing to this review,” she added.
Dr Huschke responded that she was “not doing the evaluation research for the DOJ” and did not want to comment further. However she confirmed that she is part of the advisory group for the research.
A DOJ spokesman responded that a tender for the research has been published on the eTendersNI website in line with NI Civil Service public procurement policy.
Since the law was passed, police have rescued 23 sex trafficking victims and arrested 18 men for buying sex, although only two were prosecuted. At least 13 suspects were released with cautions or discretionary disposals.
The DOJ has since confirmed that it has awarded the contract to Queen’s University Belfast. Dr Graham Ellison, reader at the School of Law, has confirmed that he will be involved in the research.
A DOJ spokeswoman said it advertised the opportunity through an openly competitive tender procedure.
“The contract was awarded to Queen’s University Belfast as it best met the required tender criteria in compliance with NI Public Procurement Policy,” she added.