It is important to recognise that commercial sexual exploitation is a form of violence against women and girls. It is therefore vital that vulnerable people are protected from abuse and that everyone who sells sex is protected from harm and exploitation.
I believe women involved in sex work should have access to information, help and support. I agree they do not need prison sentences or criminal records and in my view, we should seriously consider decriminalising people who sell sex.
Sex workers should be treated fairly, positively and respectfully and it is important that those who wish to leave sex work should be given genuine alternatives.
As criminal justice is devolved in Scotland, it is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament to legislate on these matters. Under Scots law, it is not illegal to pay for sex. However, the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 and the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act 2007 prohibit activities such as public solicitation, running a brothel and kerb-crawling.
I am aware of concerns around the effects of recent legislation in the US which gives victims of sex trafficking more power to sue websites that knowingly support sex trafficking. I recognise that there is evidence which suggests that the prohibition of such sites can result in the displacement, rather than the prevention, of abuse.
Long-term support and exit services must be provided for anyone who has been exploited and I would like to see a holistic approach to tackling sex trafficking which puts prevention at its heart, while mobilising all available measures to disrupt and robustly respond to sexual exploitation.
Last year, the Scottish Government launched its Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy. While I welcome this strategy, I believe we need to be confident that our local authorities and Police Scotland are supported and fully resourced if it is to be effective. This therefore means the Scottish Government must halt cuts to local authority and police budgets.
I assure you that I – and my colleagues in the Scottish Parliament – will work to ensure the protection of sex workers from harm continues to be the priority. I will also press for action within Scotland and across the UK to target sex traffickers and help those women who need support.