Lord McColl of Dulwich is a surgeon and a Conservative member of the House of Lords.
Earlier this year the Government published its refreshed strategy for addressing Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG).
The Government has taken a strong lead in introducing new laws to protect women and prosecute offenders in relation to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), revenge pornography and the new domestic abuse offence of controlling or coercive behaviour. The new strategy builds on these developments, and will support professionals to identify signs of abuse and intervene early to prevent abusive behaviour before it escalates. The strategy also aims to improve availability of services for those who have suffered domestic or sexual violence, including provision of refuges and specialist accommodation.
To accomplish this, it is extremely welcome that the Government has committed to provide £80 million of central funding to improve availability of services available for addressing domestic violence at a local level.
Unfortunately one particular group of women seems to have been marginalised within the strategy – those involved in prostitution. The strategy recognises the harm and exploitation that is associated with prostitution and that people in prostitution can be at particular risk of sexual and violent crime, and claims the Government is committed to “giving those who want to leave prostitution every opportunity to find routes out.” However, it makes no concrete commitments in relation to the services which should be provided to help people to leave prostitution.
The provision of assistance is of real importance because many barriers block the paths of those seeking to escape the industry. These take a variety of forms including issues with housing, difficulties in accessing work or training opportunities, challenges in overcoming substance misuse, coercive and controlling influence of others, having a criminal record, and mental and physical health care needs. There is also strong evidence that general services in these areas are currently ineffective in assisting people to leave prostitution with many women involved in prostitution accessing health and social services for years without being offered support to exit.
We need greater attention ‒ and funding ‒ at both local and national levels to ensure that professionals routinely offer women (and men) opportunities to access support to exit prostitution. There are some excellent local projects run by charities or through multi-agency partnerships between statutory and third sector groups, but unfortunately this is not the case in all parts of the country. Many projects have also had to close due to the withdrawal of funding, even though academic analysis has indicated that there are significant potential savings associated with helping people exit prostitution.
We need a more strategic approach so that all across the country women have access to specialist, holistic services where the full complexity of their circumstances can be addressed. Without it, local efforts to help women exit prostitution will continue to have only limited effect.
The Government has missed an opportunity to provide such a coherent strategic framework in the refreshed VAWG, paying only lip service to women’s need for support to leave prostitution devoid of plans for action. In a context of acknowledged exploitation failing to prioritise assisting women to exit prostitution constitutes a clear policy failure.
To compensate, this week I am introducing a Private Members Bill in the House of Lords which will require the Government to develop a national strategy for supporting people, women and men, to exit prostitution and also ensure local authorities create local strategies and plans to provide the necessary services.
I hope the Government will give serious consideration to my proposal and make provision of services to help people exit prostitution a priority. One person who successfully exited prostitution has said “I didn’t just decide one day that I had had enough. I didn’t have some sort of an epiphany. The only thing that saved me was human intervention and lots of it.” We must make that sort of help available to everyone who wants it.