18 April 2012 

Check against Delivery

I thank the Senators who have tabled this motion, and I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the current review of our legislation on prostitution.

We all agree that, as the motion states, human trafficking for sexual exploitation is a modern form of slavery and an abuse of human rights. We also agree that trafficking and prostitution cause very serious harms.. And we all share the same objectives – to deal as effectively as we can with prostitution and human trafficking and with the harms caused by prostitution and trafficking.

The motion calls on the Minister for Justice and Equality to uphold the Government’s commitment to commence a consultation process with a view to making a decision on whether prostitution legislation based on the Swedish legislative model should be enacted in this jurisdiction. I unequivocally assure the house that that commitment stands and that a detailed discussion document on the future direction of prostitution legislation that is designed to facilitate the planned consultation process will be published shortly. I confirm that drafting of the discussion document is well advanced and that the document will be published before the end of May.

Announcing my intention last October to conduct a public-consultation process, I stated that I wanted the public debate on this issue to be open to the widest possible audience. On that occasion, I also published my Department’s report on Sweden’s legislation to combat prostitution and human trafficking in order to inform public debate on this matter. Prostitution affects individuals, communities, and society as a whole.. Owing to increasing globalisation, it has become more complex. For that reason, I want to ensure that everyone who wishes to make a contribution to this important debate is given the opportunity to do so. The consultation process will form an integral part of the current review of our legislation on prostitution and help to chart the way forward.

The motion reiterates the call of the Independent Group for the Government to develop effective and appropriate responses to deal with prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation. Now I have no doubt that there is scope for improvement in our response to this challenge. But I also stress that many of the measures taken in this jurisdiction to address human trafficking have received favourable commendation nationally and internationally. A wide range of measures have been taken and will continue to be taken to prevent human trafficking, prosecute traffickers and protect trafficking victims. These measures include:

· robust legislation;

· a National Action Plan;

· targeted law enforcement;

· dedicated anti-trafficking units;

· consultative structures, which reflect a whole-of-Government response and include NGO participation in a number of standing working groups;

· a holistic range of supports for victims;

· broadly-based awareness-raising; and

· international co-operation.

I don’t propose to dwell on any of these measures at length. I would like to say a few words about the dedicated units that have been put in place.

First, there is a dedicated Anti-Trafficking Unit in my Department which, working with statutory, non-governmental and international organisations, co-ordinates and implements Government policy and measures to give effect to Ireland’s international obligations.

Second, there is a dedicated Unit in the Garda National Immigration Bureau. This unit takes the lead role in relation to the policing response. I am reassuring the House that the prevention and detection of human trafficking remains a policing priority.

Third, there is also a team of experts in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions dealing with prosecutions in trafficking cases.

Fourth, a dedicated unit in the Health Service Executive develops and implements an individual care plan for each potential victim of human trafficking and a unit in the Legal Aid Board provides legal advice to victims. In addition, personnel in the New Communities and Asylum Seekers Unit in the Department of Social Protection help victims not in the asylum system but who are granted temporary residence to access a wide range of state services, such as accommodation and other State benefits.

I assure Senators that we are not complacent. Self-evidently, the nature of human trafficking is particularly insidious and constant vigilance to ensure that it is recognised and tackled is required. It is imperative that State agencies and victim support agencies continue to work together to deal with this issue. Effective collaboration will enable preventative measures to continue to be put in place, victims to be protected and perpetrators apprehended and brought to justice. I am firmly committed to ensuring those goals continue to be met.

Although there is a significant raft of legislation on prostitution, there is scope for reform. The criminal law on prostitution has traditionally had two objectives. First, the law is aimed at protecting society from the more intrusive aspects of such activity from a public-order perspective. For that reason, under the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, it is an offence to solicit in a street or public place for the purposes of prostitution. The offence can be committed by the client, the prostitute or a third party - a pimp, for example. The second objective of the law on prostitution is to protect prostitutes from exploitation. The 1993 Act makes it an offence, therefore, to organise prostitution, coerce or compel a person to be a prostitute, knowingly live off the earnings of a prostitute, or keep or manage a brothel. Under public order legislation, the advertising of prostitution is also an offence.

I accept that our legislation on prostitution should be reviewed, primarily because of the changed nature of prostitution in Ireland. That review has been commenced. Prostitution in this country was once mainly a street-based phenomenon. That is no longer the case. Most prostitution these days has moved indoors, is highly mobile in character and is easily facilitated by the use of mobile phones and the internet.

Garda operations to tackle illegal activities have adapted to address the changed nature of prostitution. The prostitution industry is monitored by the Gardai and is the subject of regular targeted initiatives. I would like to mention Operation Quest, in particular. Initially established in the Dublin Metropolitan Region in 2003 in response to the growth of lap-dancing clubs, it was revived in 2005 to target brothel keeping, organised prostitution and the advertising of prostitution. The operation has successfully targeted individuals involved in the organisation of prostitution. It has led to the seizure of significant amounts of cash and the referral of files to the Criminal Assets Bureau. Operation Quest investigations frequently unearth complex prostitution rings operating throughout this jurisdiction and abroad and have provided the Gardai with useful insights into the industry. The operation has been expanded on a regional basis. It focuses on monitoring, gathering intelligence, and acting on that intelligence.

I’m sure Senators will be aware of another Garda operation in the Limerick area. Operation ‘Freewheel’ is an ongoing, multi-phase investigation in Limerick Garda Division. It was devised in response to both identified crime trends and specific complaints of brothel and street-based prostitution from residents and the business community in an area adjacent to Limerick City centre. The initiative focuses on the identification and prosecution of offenders, identifying any possible links to human trafficking and other criminal enterprises, and increasing awareness amongst those involved in prostitution, particularly women, of the availability of diversion services. This operation has led to numerous arrests, prosecutions and convictions for a range of offences under the 1993 legislation.

The motion, quite rightly, states that the trafficking of children for the purposes of sexual exploitation is especially abhorrent. The counter-motion agrees but also points to the very strong legislative provisions already in place to address such trafficking.

The Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 gave effect to Ireland’s obligations in various international instruments to criminalise human trafficking. The trafficking of children for sexual exploitation, including prostitution, is a criminal offence and those convicted of such trafficking are liable to life imprisonment. In addition, it is an offence under the legislation for any person to knowingly solicit or importune a trafficked person in any place, public or private, for the purpose of prostitution. This provision was included in

the legislation to specifically address demand.

I should add that Ireland’s legislation on human trafficking for sexual exploitation complies with the EU Council Framework Decision on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Council of Europe and other international instruments.

Where prostitution is concerned, our current legislation applies equally to adults and children. However, the counter-motion highlights an important provision which is specific to children. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 was amended in 2007 to provide that a person who solicits a child - whether or not for the purposes of prostitution - to commit an act which would constitute carnal knowledge or sexual assault is guilty of an offence. Moreover, in addition to being charged with such solicitation, a person who engages in a sexual act with the child can be charged with serious offences under sexual offences legislation. In these circumstances, consent to the sexual act is not a defence.

The motion calls on the Government to introduce legislation criminalising the purchase of sex in order to curb prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation. Senators will appreciate that until the consultation exercise is completed, it would not be appropriate for the Government to commit to any particular legislative approach. The consultation process must be and be seen to be objective, transparent, open-minded and fair. As the counter-motion recognises, reasonable people disagree in good faith on the appropriate legislative response to prostitution. It is important that I facilitate the expression of all views on this subject and that those views are examined in due course. In order to provide feedback, I intend to publish a report of the outcome of the consultation process.

The current review of our legislation on prostitution needs to include a comparative legislative analysis. As indicated in the counter-motion, that analysis will include further examination of the "Swedish model" but cannot be limited to exploring the experience in Sweden and the Nordic countries that have followed Sweden’s lead.

Consideration of the international dimension must also take account of the views of international organisations. In this context, Senators may be aware that since the Seanad debate in October last, the Report of the UN AIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work was published in December, 2011. This report has recommended that States remove criminal penalties for the purchase and sale of sex - neither of which arise in this jurisdiction - in order to establish legal and policy environments conducive to universal access to HIV services for sex workers. I don’t propose to go into all of the findings in the report of the Advisory Group. In any event, they require further examination. However, to provide just a brief flavour of the UN report, it expresses concerns about the conflation of sex work and trafficking and the impact that failing to clearly distinguish between the two has on sex workers. Of course, these impacts will vary from country to country. The report states that "the approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers". It also expresses the view that, "in general, demonising and marginalising clients are approaches that create major barriers to effective HIV programming with sex workers". It goes on to say that "these approaches are often adopted with the aim of reducing sex work and also trafficking, but they have not been shown to be effective in achieving these aims", and "should be avoided, from both a public health and a human rights perspective". In the circumstances, it will be important that the current review looks carefully at the UN report. Of course, this is an issue which will also be of particular interest to the Department of Health.

I have given an undertaking this evening that the discussion document to facilitate the consultation process on the future direction of prostitution legislation will be published before the end of May. I will make an announcement, at that stage, regarding the arrangements and time frame for making submissions. I’m aware from representations received in my Department that there is significant interest in this issue. I have already indicated on a number of occasions that ample time will be given to allow members of the public prepare and make submissions.

I have also agreed that a report of the outcome of the proceedings will be published. I hope that this report can be published before the end of December. I have to caution, however, that that is subject to resources having regard to the volume of submissions received and competing legislative demands.

Again, I thank Senators for raising this important matter here this evening. The consultation process will be a substantial element of the current review and I look forward to its outcome. I undertake to return to the Senators when the report of the consultation process is ready. For my part, and that of the Government, I would again like to assure the House that we are committed to take all reasonable and effective measures to address the evil of human trafficking and the issue of prostitution.