Scotland's prostitution laws are failing, and add to the dangers facing sex workers. A proposed member’s bill at Holyrood to decriminalise sex work, following the New Zealand model, deserves support

On 8 September 2015, Jean Urquhart MSP lodged a draft proposal with the Scottish Parliament for a Prostitution Law Reform (Scotland) Bill, triggering a public consultation. Jean has developed her proposals in close cooperation with sex workers and sex worker-led organisations like SCOT-PEP. 

To develop policy in conjunction with those most affected may seem like a logical proposition, but it rarely happens when it comes to sex-work law, and this is the first time that current sex workers have been centred in the development of prostitution policy in Scotland. The proposed bill is modelled on New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act, which was passed in 2003 and has demonstrably improved the lives of sex workers there. 

Members who practise in criminal law will be well aware that the current prostitution laws in Scotland are contradictory and harmful. While the act of selling sex is legal, sex workers face arrest and prosecution for a range of ancillary activities, which puts them in greater danger and inhibits the adoption of safe working practices. For example, soliciting and kerb-crawling laws mean that people, mostly women, working on the streets are forced into dark and isolated areas away from CCTV, and negotiating time with clients is vastly reduced. Brothel-keeping laws make any indoor premises where more than one sex worker operates illegal, which means that sex workers are forced to work alone, significantly increasing their vulnerability. Small groups of sex workers working together for safety are frequently charged and prosecuted in Scotland for brothel-keeping.

As advocates for decriminalisation, we do not deny or minimise the fact that violence and exploitation exist in the sex industry. Sex workers themselves can amply attest to the extent to which criminalisation and stigma create conditions that make them vulnerable to violence or exploitation. These proposals, then, are rooted in the belief that sex work is not an inherently dangerous activity and instead that laws and policies can be enacted to better ensure worker safety. 

The proposed bill is focused on changing the law to reduce harm. It includes the repeal of soliciting and kerb-crawling laws; legislating to make it possible for up to four sex workers to work collectively from the same indoor premises; a licensing regime for larger brothels; and the repeal of laws that criminalise “living on the earnings of prostitution” to make it legal for sex workers to have joint finances with partners, family members and flatmates. 

Despite what you may hear from those opposed, this proposed bill is not about protecting the rights of “pimps and punters”. It is intended to have the opposite effect, and if passed will increase the rights of sex workers over managers and clients. It includes a statutory right to refuse to provide sexual services (that can be exercised at any point in the transaction), and more comprehensive laws against coercion in the sex industry. We believe that it is criminalisation that increases the power of managers and puts sex workers at greater risk of exploitation. Under decriminalisation, sex workers are able to work more autonomously, knowing that they can rely on the authorities for protection rather than prosecution. In addition, they can hold managers to account and are able to pursue claims before the courts like any other worker or contractor. This happens routinely in New Zealand and, in a landmark ruling from 2014, the New Zealand Human Rights Tribunal upheld a sex worker’s complaint of sexual harassment against a brothel operator, awarding her $25,000.

The tide is turning and the world is waking up to the fact that decriminalisation is the only way to ensure that the rights and safety of people who sell sex are upheld. Amnesty International recently passed a motion advocating the decriminalisation of sex work globally. In doing so, Amnesty joins a long list of other international supporters for decriminalisation including UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation, Human Rights Watch, Anti-Slavery International and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, as well as sex worker-led organisations from every corner of the globe.

We are hopeful that the people of Scotland will examine the evidence and support these progressive and pragmatic proposals. We would urge members, particularly those with experience of representing sex workers through the criminal courts, to respond in support of the proposed bill.

The consultation is open until 1 December 2015 and can be found here:


The Author
Stewart Cunningham and Nadine Stott are co-chairs of SCOT-PEP SCOT-PEP is a sex worker-led charity that advocates for the safety, rights and health of everyone who sells sex in Scotland. email:
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