The Department of Justice has defended the objectivity of the lead researcher in a team it commissioned to examine prostitution.
Justice Minister David Ford commissioned the £60,000 contract to inform debate around a controversial DUP bill which would, if passed, criminalise men who buy sex.
Lord Morrow believes it will reduce sex trafficking by reducing demand for paid sex, but Mr Ford believes it may push the sex trade further underground and make women in it more vulnerable.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) told the News Letter its contract on the issue has been awarded to Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).
“The lead researcher is Dr Susann Huschke, assisted by Professor Peter Shirlow, Dr Dirk Schubotz and Dr Eilis Ward,” a DOJ spokesman said.
However, Stormont Justice Committee member Jim Wells of the DUP said he was “shocked” by the choice.
“I object in that the lead researcher Dr Susann Huschke, when giving evidence to us, was already very critical of the bill’s aim of criminalising the purchase of sex,” he said. “I believe this means that the research from the outset is more likely than not to come out in support of the minister’s position against the bill.”
But committee member Stewart Dickson of the Alliance Party, who has been critical of the DUP bill, disagreed.
“I am absolutely confident that the procurement procedure has produced an academic who will meet all the appropriate standards for research to be delivered on the contract,” he said.
A DOJ spokesman hit back that the contract was awarded through Department of Finance tendering procedures.
“Professor Peter Shirlow is the principal investigator on the project and Dr Susann Huschke the lead researcher,” he clarified. “The project team also includes a number of staff and a diverse advisory group representing a variety of views on the research area.
“The aim of the research is to gather factual empirical evidence in relation to the nature and extent of prostitution in Northern Ireland.”
He said it would “make no judgments or recommendations” on criminalising the purchase of sex.
QUB declined to offer any comment.