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Last Updated: Friday, 18 January 2008, 17:24 GMT
Sweden's sex lessons
Paola Buonadonna
By Paola Buonadonna
The Politics Show

Prostitute's legs
Will the streets ever be rid of prostitutes?

In 2003, Home Office officials looked at the Swedish legislation which makes the buying of sex illegal, as part of a consultation on prostitution - but nothing was done with the findings. Paola Buonadonna, who covered the story for the Politics Show, has returned to Stockholm as the government now appears seriously interested in what authorities there have to say.

Despite several attempts in recent years to overhaul the complex and old-fashioned tangle of legislations dealing with prostitution in England and Wales, the results have amounted to minor and sometimes contradictory bits of tinkering.

Now the Home Office has kick-started yet another review of this issue with another, this time very high profile, visit to Sweden, led by Home Office Minister, Vernon Coaker.

Sweden is the only country in Europe to criminalise the buyer of sexual services with hefty fines, public summons and the threat of up to six months in jail, while not penalising the prostitute who is always considered a victim in the transaction.

The aim of the law, passed in 1999, which enjoys very high approval levels among the population, is to disrupt demand for prostitution and therefore also decrease demand for trafficking of human beings for sex.

The authorities in Sweden say they are very happy with the results, citing that street prostitution has gone down dramatically and that trafficking - while rising slightly in real terms since 1999 - is now significantly lower than in neighbouring countries.

Moral high ground fears

Yet, while the law enjoys very high levels of support among the public, critics say the data proving its positive effect is vague and insubstantial while they express worry for some unforeseen negative effects, such as an alleged increase of danger and violence faced by the remaining street-workers.

A further criticism is levelled at the Swedish authorities is one of moralising, given their insistence that the law is important even just as a signal of the kind of values society upholds.

Prostitutes and money
There is still widespread exploitation of women through trafficking

The Shadow Minister for Women, Theresa May, said she was sceptical about the Swedish data and urged the government to apply and, if necessary, strengthen the legislative tools already in place dealing with demand, for instance action on kerb-crawling.

Climate of compassion

Mr Coaker told me that public opinion in Britain has become more and more aware of the exploitative side of the sex trade, be it the drug addiction plunging thousands of young women into street prostitution or the straightforward slavery inherent in the trafficking of human beings for sex.

A climate of compassion towards the women selling sex and horror at the degradation they face was further fostered, in his view, by the cases of the five young women murdered in Ipswich in 2006.

The trial of their alleged killer has just got underway at Ipswich Crown Court.

While not wishing to pre-judge the outcome of the six month review, Mr Coaker added that he felt the British public was ready to look at ways of curbing demand decisively, whether through legislation or other means.

It was clear to me that he was impressed by the Swedish zero tolerance approach as a "statement of the sort of society we want".

We commissioned ICM Research to ask a question about the desirability of criminalising the buying of sex in its weekly Omnibus Poll.

The results, which we will unveil in the course of our programme on Sunday 20 January, will be sure to give the government further food for thought.

The Politics Show, with Jon Sopel on Sunday 20 January 2008 at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.

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