Human Trafficking: No one is helped by a fevered moral crusade that promises the earth and delivers nothing

Whatever the liberal media think of the Assembly, it looks like it may be about to score a first and produce its very own indigenous piece of legislation, intriguingly for an Executive of all the parties, through the means of a private members bill.

Perhaps that’s because the Minister for Justice shares a concern with the police that the result of Lord Morrow’s human trafficking legislation will be to dilute police resources and drive the problem of trafficked individuals further from detection, rather than, as the DUP MLA believes, cutting off demand.

The ennobled DUP MLA is not keen on public servants (or from the tone of last night’s debate, any dissenting criticism of his prefered approach) contributing to any public debate outside the Assembly. In a statement to the press yesterday he rounded on critics of his bill within the police, even threatening them with action:

The Police Ombudsman should also conduct a review of the current activity by the police in publicly opposing my Bill to establish if Article 1.6 of the PSNI Code of Ethics has been breached; which states: “Police officers shall not take any active part in politics”.

Nevertheless, it seems obvious that the very focus of the Assembly on human trafficking was welcomed by some victims.

At the core of Lord Morrow’s proposed changes is the simple move to (and likely to be persuasive from a socially conservative viewpoint)  make prostitution criminal rather than just illegal as it currently is. Here’s the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s submission:

At present, it is illegal in NI to pay for the sexual services of a prostitute of any age where the prostitute has been subject to exploitation.  This provision goes further than Article 19 of the CoE  Convention and Article 18(4) of the EU Directive by eliminating the requirement for ‘knowledge’. However, the Commission notes that as of September 2012, there have been no convictions for this offence.

After conducting an extensive evaluation of the UK, the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (‘GRETA’) published a report in September 2012, in which it noted that, ‘the UK authorities have recognised that this offence is difficult to prove and is generally charged when accompanying other more serious offences’. [emphasis added]

So Lord Morrow’s gambit here is to make prostitution a more serious offence thereby hoping to game the police into taking it more seriously than they currently do. That’s based on an expectation of evincing a new draconian approach to law enforcement in a society within which some political parties have a decidedly checkered record of upholding the law, or supporting the police.

Aside from his party’s voluble criticism of the police, beyond the need for coordination and copious references to the almost religiously law abiding nation of Sweden, one of the few EU countries to go down this route, there was little discussion on the allocation of resources necessary for them to carry out the degree of work needed to make Lord Morrow’s proposed law effective.

However, as we have seen from the apparent underinvestment in the investigation of child sex abuse (which is itself already a highly criminal activity), making something criminal does not, as the DUP’s Jim Wells appeared to believe, ‘end the risk’ of it actually taking place.

The trafficking of humans, the supposed centre of the bill’s concerns, is well worth focusing on. UKIP’s sole MLA in Stormont, David McNarry was the last speaker before the nine o’clock deadline last night, and he rightly pointed out that this is largely a local problem, concerning the criminal behaviour of local people.

The European Directorate General for Home Affairs notes that whilst there is a strong overlap between human trafficking and the sex industry, but it is far from total:

Women and children are particularly affected: women and girls represent 56 % of victims of forced economic exploitation and 98% of victims of forced commercial sexual exploitation. Children are also trafficked to be exploited for begging or illegal activities, such as petty theft.

In its precise context, associated with the sex trade or not, human trafficking is a discrete form of modern slavery.

It may be done through grooming tactics, and coercion rather than through out and out captivity as such. In our post conflict society the acute sense of danger necessary for such coercion to be effective is easy to create.  Those participating accommodate to terrifying demands, and this extraordinary state of affairs quickly becomes ‘normalised’.

Often as not, trafficking takes place outside the classic outward structures of prostitution, the jargon and the terminology that many of us grew up with don’t apply as cleanly some MLAs appear to believe.

With the help of Sinn Fein (who are hardly in a position to say no) and the two other Executive parties he may expect to get this over the win line with the minimum of liberal fuss and nonsense [or should that be nonce sense? – Ed].

What the victims need is for the Assembly to focus seriously on the real problems of human trafficking. It helps no one for the Assembly to become embroiled in a fevered moral crusade that promises the earth and delivers nothing to those least powerful in our society.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty