I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
It has been described as one of the oldest professions in history - an industry that cannot and, some would say, should not be abolished. Everyone these days has an opinion on prostitution, the overall sex industry and its place in society. For me it is simple: anything that contributes to gender inequality and allows for the purchase of one human being for the gratification of another is not only unacceptable, it is fundamentally and morally wrong.
Ireland's current approach to the regulation of prostitution is partial criminalisation, whereby the sale or purchase of sexual services in Ireland is currently not criminalised, provided it is conducted out of public view and with some activities associated with prostitution - such as pimping, soliciting in public or brothel keeping - being a crime. It is also an offence to organise prostitution, coerce or compel a person to be a prostitute, or knowingly live on the earnings of a prostitute. The rationale behind these offences is the protection of prostitutes and an attempt to protect society from the nuisance and public-order problems associated with prostitution. However, the buying and selling of sex indoors remains protected by omission under the presumption that this is a private contract between consenting adults.
Since 2008, there has also been specific legislation on human trafficking, which makes it an offence to knowingly solicit or importune a trafficked person, in any place, for the purpose of prostitution. Prostitution by children is also outlawed.
The nature of prostitution in Ireland has changed dramatically over the past decade. Street prostitutes, the most visible face of prostitution, have been outnumbered by off-street prostitutes who can be contacted over the Internet or by telephone. Many more foreign prostitutes operate in Ireland than a decade ago and the true extent of the trafficking of women into and within Ireland for sexual exploitation is unknown.
I strongly believe that prostitution is incompatible with contemporary values and that it is a serious social problem which can and should be abolished. In reality, very few women choose to willingly engage in prostitution, with most who are involved having very few real choices. This issue must be addressed. We must decriminalise the victims in this so-called "trade" and give them the option of rehabilitation, while targeting demand. It is for these reasons that I am presenting my Private Members' Bill, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2013, in line with the Swedish legislation.
This Bill sets out a number of offences for the purchase of sexual services that are initially intended to act as a deterrent and lead to serious consequences for repeat offenders. It makes provision for the introduction of the criminalisation of the purchasers of sexual services. It will reduce the demand for sexual services thereby reducing the incidence of prostitution in society. In addition, it will create a situation that will remove the attractiveness of prostitution and trafficking from organised criminal elements by creating the risk for purchasers of sexual services to be prosecuted with the element of "name and shame" acting as a deterrent.
The proposed new section 7 of the 1993 Act makes it an offence for a person to actually engage or attempt to engage, in any place, a person for the purpose of buying sexual services. It also makes it an offence for a person, in any place, to obtain sexual services by means of prostitution. It goes on to provide that first-time offenders will be liable to an on-the-spot fine; second-time offenders will be liable to a class C fine, which is currently a maximum of €2,500; and third-time and other repeat offenders will be liable to a class B fine, which is currently a maximum of €4,000, and a possible prison term of up to four weeks.
Section 4 inserts a new section 7A into the 1993 Act so as to put in place arrangements for the collection of on-the-spot fines which are provided for in section 3 of the Bill. The proposed new section 7A provides that a garda may issue a fixed payment notice to a first-time offender. This requires the offender to pay a fine of €500 within 21 days. In respect of first-time offenders, a prosecution is only instituted where the payment is not made within that period. The Bill's language is gender-neutral to accommodate the involvement by both sexes in this exploitative industry.
I wish to express my thanks to, and acknowledge the presence here today of, representatives from the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, who have been very supportive throughout the drafting of this Bill. I understand there were public hearings in recent months conducted by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and that the Government is awaiting its finalised report. I am glad that this issue is being discussed. However, each day that goes by, women and girls are being exploited in the most degrading way and I strongly believe that only the Swedish model can address this. I know I am not alone in this view. Now is the time to take an affirmative stand on this issue.
One in four sex-buyers in Ireland - that is, 24% - have come across women and girls who appeared trafficked, controlled or underage, according to a major survey on prostitution published recently by the Immigrant Council of Ireland. In addition, the findings showed that fear of a criminal record, prison time or being named in a local newspaper were selected as effective deterrents by sex-buyers, and are only surpassed by fear of contracting disease.
The facts do not lie. In Sweden in 2010, a high-level inquiry headed up by a supreme court judge, showed that since the introduction of the ban in 1999, street prostitution has halved. In 1995, the estimated total of women involved in prostitution in Sweden was 2,500-3,000 with 650 of those on the streets. In 2008, there were 350 advertised prostitutes on the Internet and 300 on the street.
Some may say that all the legislation has done in Sweden - and would do here - is to drive prostitution underground, but is prostitution not already underground? If a sex-buyer can find a prostitute in a hotel or some other establishment, then the Garda can find them too. What is needed is a change in attitude and a shift in public opinion on prostitution. If people understand the dire living conditions and backgrounds of these women, they will quickly realise it is not the glamorous, luxurious, empowering lifestyle that some believe it to be.
Prostitutes would be safer under this legislation because they would be the victims, and thereby could report acts of violence and seek medical treatment without ramification. Once people accept that prostitution is a barrier to gender equality and a form of violence against women, their opinion changes. That is what has happened in Sweden where public opinion was initially hostile, but now 70% of the public support this law. Norway and Iceland have brought in laws banning the purchase of sex and the UK has taken tentative steps towards criminalising clients. We are backward enough on societal issues in this country, but let us not make this another one.
I find the use of the term "voluntary prostitution" and the myth of choice when entering this industry, to be counterproductive to this debate. What exactly can be defined as voluntary in this situation? Is it someone who cannot make ends meet or put food on the table, or a woman whose partner tells her she only has to do it a few times but never seems to find a way out? Is it perhaps a young woman who was made to walk the streets as a girl and knows no other way of life, or who has very limited life choices? How about someone who has a drug habit?
No one chooses to enter this industry. While not everyone is forced into it by pimps and traffickers, limited life choices have a big part to play and need to be addressed.