Senior members of the government are discussing whether to criminalise the purchase, rather than sale, of sex - as Sweden did eight years ago - in part because of the growth in sex trafficking. According to the government, 85% of women in brothels come from outside the UK.Men have been convicted for trafficking women into Britain, but none has been prosecuted for paying for sex with women or girls forced into the sex trade.
One minister acknowledged the move would be "quite a dramatic step", but added: "There's no doubt whatsoever it's being talked about. There is increasing awareness among senior ministers, particularly women, that demand for prostitution is an area which needs to be tackled seriously and hasn't been."
A number of senior women in government - including Jacqui Smith, the home secretary; Patricia Scotland, the attorney general; Vera Baird, solicitor general; and Harriet Harman, leader of the house - are thought to be sympathetic to the calls.
Other proposals being considered include large-scale programmes to name and shame men caught kerbcrawling, which is already illegal. But campaigners believe that only by criminalising clients can they help women working in brothels as well as on the streets and send out a signal that paying for sex is not acceptable.
Fiona Mactaggart MP, who as a home office minister was in charge of tackling prostitution until last year, said: "The criminal justice bill that comes back on the first day [after the parliamentary recess] includes changes to the prostitution strategy. It would be possible to put into it some amendment which deals with this issue of men who pay for sex," she said.
She dismissed arguments that prostitution was an inevitable part of society, adding: "We have always had murder - that doesn't make it right. The price of prostitution is enormously high for women...[And] the more vulnerable the woman is, the cheaper the price is for men."
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