Prostitution is on the rise in Britain. Poverty has driven many women into the sex industry since the recession hit, with single mums especially vulnerable. A report by Westminster Council in April showed a rise in sex workers. The trend is happening elsewhere too.
As a result we are now seeing more 'enforcement operations' by police. From Luton to Walsall these crackdowns have become the norm. Ilford, which is in my own EU Parliament constituency, is the latest place to have a drive of this kind. Operation Clearlight, which reported its 100th arrest in September, aims to "send out the message that [prostitution] will not be tolerated."
It is understandable that police want to take a tough stance. And it's also true that police forces often deal sensitively with prostitution. Operation Clearlight's Sergeant McBride, for example, said his officers were "trying, rather than targeting the girls, to target the people who use them." Nevertheless, many women end up arrested and charged. The problem remains that, in the eyes of the law, the women providing sex and the men paying for it are virtually interchangeable.
Blanket criminalisation clearly isn't working. It doesn't address the core problem, and sometimes perpetuates it; prostitutes are convicted, criminalised, have less of a route out than before, and thus return to the sex industry. A subterranean economy is created, which is demeaning at best and dangerous at worst.
So, if the current system is failing then where do we go from here? This is the question I've tried to answer through my work at the EU.
There are two alternatives for the UK. The first is the well-publicised Dutch model, which legalises both being a sex worker and using one. The second is the Nordic model, which legalises soliciting but criminalises prostitute use.
In recent weeks we've seen the tension between these two approaches played out between the United Nations - who favour legalisation on grounds of safety - and the women's charity Equality Now, who support the Nordic model. Equality Now describe decriminalisation as a "failed experiment" which has neither brought things above ground nor made them safer. Legalisation, they say, "has empowered buyers, pimps and traffickers".
I myself am unequivocally on the side of Equality Now and the Nordic model. I will be bringing out a report to this effect for the European Parliament's Gender Equality and Woman's Right Committee later this year.
For me part of the discussion comes down to ethics. Is the main problem with the sex industry that it violates women's rights? Or is prostitution a healthy life choice for some women, which simply needs to be made safe?
Through my experience of talking to sex workers and prostitute support services I've come to believe the overwhelming majority of women don't go willingly into prostitution. In most cases they are coerced into it, either directly, by criminal groups, or indirectly, through poverty and social problems. Almost all prostitute-punter relationships are imbalanced, I believe; as such they are an affront to gender equality. Legalisation only normalises this. As Rachel Moran, author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution, says, "Prostitution is a crime against humanity. To legalise it is to socially condone this crime."
A second part of the discussion centres on what works. From what I've seen the Dutch model simply isn't effective. In 2003 Dutch authorities conceded that decriminalisation had failed. Holland is now one of Europe's top destinations for sex trafficking. There is also evidence of a negative cultural impact, with places where it's legal to buy sex often reporting higher levels of rape and domestic abuse.
In contrast the Nordic model, which came into force in Sweden in 1999, has been highly effective. Street prostitution has halved since it was introduced, and there's been a marked reduction in trafficking. There is evidence, too, of a knock-on effect for social attitudes, with Swedish men now three times as likely to be against paying for sex.
Residents in places like Ilford live day in day out with the unsavoury and often frightening reality of prostitution up close. They want to see it go away. For me Sweden's brand of partial legalisation represents the best chance of this happening - as well as the best way of protecting women's safety and dignity in the longer term.