BY LISA FALCONER Highlands and Islands MSP Jean Urquhart has spoken out against proposals to criminalise the purchase of sex, claiming that such a move would “significantly increase harm” to sex workers. The Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex (Scotland) Bill was launched by Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant in September 2012. The ensuing consultation receiving almost 1,000 responses, with 80 per cent supporting the proposals. Among the supporters were church groups, the Highland Violence Against Women Multi-Agency Partnership, NHS Scotland and the Scottish Coalition Against Sexual Eploitation. The 20 per cent who did not support the motion include groups representing sex workers such as the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, as well as the Terence Higgins Trust — a sexual health campaign group. The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, meanwhile, were undecided. Citing the lack of backing for the Bill from sex workers themselves, Mrs Urquhart wrote on her blog last Friday that she would not support the motion. She added that a number of constituents had contacted her regarding the proposals. “Sex workers are among the most vulnerable workers in Scotland, and many work at daily risk of exploitation and violence,” she wrote. “The role of the law should be to protect the vulnerable from harm. I believe that should Ms Grant’s proposals become law, it would significantly increase harm suffered by sex workers in Scotland. For this reason I will be arguing against the proposed Bill. “Regrettably, the consultation on this proposal largely dismisses the testimony of those most affected – sex workers themselves – and of those, such as drug services, who have witnessed the effects first-hand. If these voices are taken properly into account, a picture of serious harm resulting from hardline legislation in Scotland and elsewhere emerges.” The Ullapool-based Independent MSP continued: “Criminalising the purchase of sex causes clients to avoid visible locations, requiring sex workers to operate further from police and other services that protect their safety and health, including peer support networks. Sex workers will be more isolated and more vulnerable as a result. “The reduction of demand, which is the stated aim of the proposal, means that in order to continue working, sex workers will be forced to accept clients or working conditions that they previously would have rejected. This will include such dangerous practices as not concluding negotiations before accepting a client, not using condoms, and accepting clients known or suspected to be violent.” Mrs Urquhart, who is a member of the Cross-Party Group on Human Trafficking, said she took the reality of “modern-day slavery very seriously”, but believes that Mrs Grants proposals would “exacerbate the horror of trafficking and frustrate efforts to eradicate it”. She added that she believed criminalising the purchase of sex would prevent clients from coming forward to report sex workers whom they believed to be trafficked, underage, or otherwise exploited. She concluded: “I understand that many feel strongly about this issue on both sides of the debate. For me, the only reasonable starting point is to ask: what will best protect the safety, wellbeing and human rights of those most affected? The answer to that question is improved services, improved police training, and improved public understanding, not crackdowns that drive sex workers further from social protection.” Speaking at the end of May, when the consultation results were published, Mrs Grant said: “There has been an excellent response, and I now hope we can use the evidence provided to change society’s attitude towards buying and selling sex thereby protecting vulnerable people. “It’s imperative that we support those most at risk within our society and I believe this Bill would put the focus on the people who purchase sex rather than those who supply it, often under difficult or challenging personal circumstances. “No individual should be subject to inequality, abuse or exploitation — nor should anyone be treated as a commodity to be bought or sold.” For the Bill to progress, Mrs Grant must gain the support of 18 MSPs across three political parties by the end of this month.