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Legislative Reviews

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 22 October 2020

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Questions (5)

Bríd Smith


5. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Justice if she will commission a review of the effects of changes in the law regarding the offence of prostitution and specifically the effects of this change on vulnerable women; the number of women who have been charged with the offence of brothel keeping since the change to the legislation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [32021/20]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Justice)

My question is on a related subject. It is about the review of the effects of the changes in the law regarding the offence of prostitution, specifically, the effects of this change on vulnerable women, and the number of women who have been charged with the offence of brothel keeping since the change to the legislation.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important question.

The principal aim of the changes made by Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, was to provide additional protection to those involved in prostitution, especially for those that are particularly vulnerable and are victims of human trafficking. Among the changes made was to remove those who offer their services as a prostitute from the existing offences of soliciting. This allows people working in prostitution to provide information to the Garda on, for example, violence towards them by clients, without risking prosecution for selling sexual services. The Act also introduced two new offences - paying for sexual activity with a prostitute and paying for sexual activity with a trafficked person - and it increased the existing penalty for brothel keeping.

Regarding a review of the effects of the 2017 legislation, the Act provides for a review three years after its commencement. In July, I commissioned an independent expert, Ms Maura Butler, to undertake the review. Deputy Connolly asked for a timeline. I do not have a timeline, but Ms Butler is working on it and will have it concluded as soon as possible. The review will examine whether the changes made are, in practice, operating as intended and are offering additional protection to those that are most vulnerable. It will assess the impact of Part 4 on the safety and well-being of persons engaged in sexual activity for payment and it will consider if further measures are needed to strengthen these protections. In addition, it will quantify the number of arrests and convictions in respect of offences under Part 4. The review is well under way and an online public consultation was open up to mid-September, which is very welcome. I understand that contributions were received from a broad range of organisations with different perspectives.

Regarding the second part of the Deputy’s question, I am informed by An Garda Síochána that since the commencement of the relevant legislative provisions on 27 March 2017 there have been 60 reported incidents of brothel keeping up to 15 October 2020. Of the 37 suspects associated with these incidents, 31 were female and six were male. To date, 20 have been charged or summoned in respect of these offences, 17 of whom are female and three are male. The work of my Department in this area will continue to be guided by our primary aim of protecting the safety and well-being of the most vulnerable women here.

The following deferred reply was received under Standing Order 51.

I am informed by An Garda Síochána that there have been 63 incidents since the commencement of the relevant legislative provisions on 27 March 2017 that had either a charge or summons where the wording of the charge-summons indicated an offence contrary to section 7 A of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, as inserted by section 25 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. This information was collated following a word search of the narrative text on the charge-summons information contained on the PULSE system.

The charges-summons identified relate to 64 persons, 63 of which are unique with one person receiving charges for two separate incidents.

As usual, the questions are not answered. Like Deputy Connolly, I believe not giving a date for the completion of the review is unsatisfactory. If the law states that it must be conducted within three years, we should have a date for it. I was recently involved in a students' union debate in University College Dublin, UCD, which included people who support the opposite position and who pushed for this legislation. They do not support the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, which organises to undermine them in many ways and is opposed to this review being completed. That prompted my question. Why do we not have a date for the review being completed? Are there outside pressures on the Minister? Are groups pushing for the review to not be conducted, which is their wish?

I am also alarmed that 20 people have been charged with brothel keeping. I tabled a parliamentary question some months ago asking how many purchasers of sex had been charged. The reply said there were several files with the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, but there were no charges against the purchasers of sex at that time. Perhaps the Minister has figures on that.

Can the Deputy conclude?

What this reveals is that perhaps this amendment to the legislation is not working in favour of those whom it is meant to protect.

The review was to start three years after the legislation was passed. It was to start in March, but with the election, the formation of the Government and Covid-19, there was a slight delay. There is also the fact that Maura Butler, who is conducting the review, is also undertaking a review of familicide. Two pieces of work are taking place concurrently. I spoke to Ms Butler this week and, while I do not have an exact timeline, I will meet her again in the next two or three weeks to go into more detail and to see if she and her team require any additional support. While it was a little late starting, and I hope the Deputy can understand the reason due to Covid-19, the formation of the Government and the other review she has undertaken, she is committed to this work. When I have a timeline, I will make it available. On Deputy Connolly's question about whether it would be made public, it will.

As to whether anybody has been asking us not to do it, that is not the case. Nobody has requested that this review not happen or be delayed. I do not have the figures the Deputy sought, but I will try to get further information for her on that.

In the review we are trying to understand whether the legislation is working and whether there are increased instances of women coming forward when they have experienced violence against them or where they feel unsafe and, most important, where they have been trafficked that they know it is safe to come forward. I hope that is what the review will highlight.

I am sure the Minister is aware that being charged with keeping a brothel may mean that there are two women or people in the same space. The personal evidence of many sex workers is that they stay in twos in the same space for their safety, particularly during Covid. There is evidence that their safety was far more compromised during the pandemic. I am alarmed that there have been 20 charges of brothel keeping. It would be good to get a breakdown of that. Was it two women, five or 20, or, indeed, was it somebody pimping them and in charge of their work? The Minister will find, by and large, that it is two people working in the same space for their safety. There are many questions to be asked. It is important that we get the information on when the review will be complete and when we will have it, and on that cohort of very vulnerable people who are being charged for protecting and keeping themselves safe. The other question I asked was whether we could get the number of those who have been charged with the purchase of sex, so we can look at the figures and see what is happening.

I undertake to get those figures for the Deputy. As I said, of the 20 people who have been charged, 17 are female and three are male. I must admit, I asked the same question as to why out of the 60 incidents, 31 of the 37 were female. Is there a situation where many of these women are doing so under coercion or pressure and do not necessarily wish to be there? Of the 60, only 17 have been charged. The Garda will in every instance try to engage with people, including somebody who is suspected of keeping a brothel, to try to understand their situation and whether this is something they are happy to do or if they have been put under pressure. At every stage there is an opportunity for the Garda to engage with these women to try to ascertain whether they are there of their own volition.

Regarding those who work together, this question arose when the legislation was being passed. There are concerns that if one decriminalises brothel keeping, it could create a loophole and, further, allow abuse by criminal gangs and others who wish to profit from prostitution. This is being reviewed in the legislation. Ms Butler is carrying out that work and we will have the review as soon as possible.

Question No. 8 replied to with Written Answers.