Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Prostitution propositions

I don't believe in evil for the most part. The acts of murder and rape can be products of a damaged or desperate mind, responding in a horribly wrong way to the world they are experiencing. Sex-trafficking on the other hand, is the one thing that makes me spitting mad. It is hard to discount the word evil when describing a man who takes women and girls from their families and friends promising them a better life, only to brutally sell their bodies for his own personal gain.

With that in mind you would think I would welcome the government initiative to make it illegal to pay for sex with someone who is being controlled and is a prostitute against their will. Unfortunately, I believe anything which drives prostitution further into the shadows – and that is where the clients will want it to go if they think they're playing russian roulette with a hefty fine or rape charge – will make prostitution more dangerous for all the woman who find themselves involved in it. I believe it is right that anyone who pays for sex with someone they know to have been trafficked should face a rape charge, for that is exactly what they are doing. Not knowing the mindset of someone who pays for sex, I can only speculate that this might be an incentive not to ask any questions and just get in and out without any chit-chat. It is of course quite possible that this is what clients do anyway, and perhaps an explanation of why they need to pay for sex in the first place.

So how do we tackle the problem then?

Please be advised that the section of text below is in massive writing not because I believe it requires extra emphasis but that I didn't know how to fix it (sorry)

It is clear to me that you cannot tackle the issue of prostitution without tackling drug abuse. The statistics I could find suggest that 75-80% of prostitutes are addicted to drugs. A serious drug addiction makes it nigh impossible to hold down a job, so a £50 a day habit needs to be supported by prostitution or crime. I say needs, but if you could get the drug locally for free at a government sanctioned “shooting gallery” then there would be no “need” and somewhere near three quarters of prostitutes would have no reason to sell their bodies for cash.

(and relax)

Drug users are not necessarily bad people. They are just people who were sad, bored or ignorant at one point in their lives, made a really bad decision and found themselves imprisoned in an addiction to which their was no means of escape. No community is going to want a “shooting gallery” in their midst, until you explain the benefits that is. In Widnes, where there was an experimental heroin prescription policy, the local Marks and Spencer's was so delighted by the 90% drop in shoplifting that they donated £5000 to the project.

Read a remarkable article on the Widnes project here:

Okay, so now that you've quartered the prostituting population, what to do about trafficking? Looking at the situation from a cold, practical perspective, if prescribing heroin to existing addicts quarters the supply of prostitutes for their paying clients, how is demand going to be met? Would trafficking even increase to fill the gap with exploited, non-addicted girls and women from overseas? I don't know the answer to this, but I feel the key to ensuring this doesn't happen is to establish a difference between “good”, tolerated providers of prostitutes and those who are controlled by pimps and traffickers.

I suspect the only way to draw a solid line between the two groups is to introduce some sort of licensing arrangement whereby government can lay down the guidelines for what would be an acceptable organisation providing sex for sale. My own instincts on this would be that support staff should be voluntary or be on flat-rate pay without commission and that they should be entirely female and that social work and police – again female – should have full access to records, accounts, and interviews with the women employed. Once any such system is established, it would then be acceptable to me to have severe punishments for clients using unlicensed providers of prostitution.

Where prostitutes are identified who are being controlled, we should be looking to rehouse these women or girls out of the area in which their pimp operates - with friends and colleagues if necessary - in return for information leading to arrests. If women are concerned that grassing would put them in danger then it is our responsibility to make sure that all resources are made available to ensure that they can be reassured.

I believe this latest government initiative is yet another example of tinkering around at the edges of policy in the fear that there would be a public backlash against the sensible solution. It is the governments duty to do what is right for its people, not what is popular. If a proposal is unpopular, then it is the governments duty to explain as best they can why the proposal would work for the benefit of all (except pimps and traffickers, although surely they would be happier doing something else with their lives. They are still human aren't they? I'm not quite sure.)

Why we need single transferable votes

So here are my thoughts on electoral systems: When considering which electoral systems are going to best represent the people of a country, there are many important issues that have to be considered (in no particular order except that in which they came to mind).

Local accountability:

The "first past the post" system currently employed in the UK works very well in this respect in that approximately 70,000 people in each constituency have a designated MP for their geographical area who they can go to with their problems. Any move towards PR will dilute this relationship to some extent. The first past the post system also forces the parties to tailor their candidates to the local political climate and so encourages a broad range of political views within their party. By example, Dennis Skinner, famously left-wing labour MP, is presumably elected because he reflects opinions in a left-wing constituency. In a party list system, where would people like Dennis Skinner come, presuming that the party leaders would rather have sheep towing the party line? Where would all the candidates come from, and how would the citizens know who to complain to? The "single transferable vote within party list" system that would give the citizens a say in where Dennis Skinners end up would surely favour candidates with a high public profile rather than quietly effective politicians which I suspect would be bad for effective government. A move towards the single transferable vote within present constituency boundaries causes no loss of the local accountability which is the one great strength of the current system.

Does your vote "count"?:

"First past the post" I believe is a misleading term, which applies only to westminster seats, and not to the situation in constituencies. A more accurate term for what happens in constituencies is "winner takes all". There is no "post" in percentage points past which you are guaranteed victory. The person with the most votes represents everyone in that constituency regardless of whether they love, tolerate or hate them. If you favour one of the smaller political parties, the greens for example, your vote is always going to be wasted under the present system. Anyone with any sense who feels the greens best represent their political views should ditch idealism and vote for the candidate who is closest to their standpoint and has a chance of winning. THIS IS NOT DEMOCRACY. If you walk into a voting booth and intelligently choose to vote tactically, your true opinions and beliefs are being suppressed. Okay, so it's you that is suppressing them, but you should not be forced into that situation in a truly democratic country.

The "single transferable vote" system destroys the need for tactical voting. You can rank everyone on the ballot according to how well they represent your views. If your first vote was for a party which didn't get many votes, your second preference may be crucial in deciding which candidate squeezes past the 50% mark needed for victory. Your vote counts at last. Oh, and if you don't feel you have enough information to engage and make a decision, you have the option of tossing a coin to determine the rankings of the other candidates before ranking the BNP last.

No longer would liberals stay at home or vote tactically in a labour-tory marginal. They can go out and vote liberal 1st and find out just how many people around them truly share their views. The same would go for tories in labour-SNP marginals and... well... everyone everywhere.

Coalition governments:

The Scottish parliament election system has the first past the post system with regional party list top-ups which has led to coalition government. It can be argued that coalitions lead to instability and damage the ability of governments to concentrate on running the country. It can also be argued however that a broader range of views (and citizens) are represented in coalition government, and that lesser coalition partners can be a moderating force preventing government flip-flopping to the the extremes of the political spectrum every 4 or 5 years. No country is going to be well served by 3 years of every 5 year cycle being spent undoing the policies of the previous government. Fortunately(?) it seems that British politics has lost its extremes - at least within the main political parties - and this would likely not occur.

A problem occurs however when the coalition partner is a party further to the extremes of the political spectrum. Try to imagine a situation whereby the percentage of the national vote is reflected in seats in parliament and the conservative party have no majority but can get legislation through if they make concessions to UKIP and/or the BNP. The voters have little say in which party is chosen as a junior coalition partner, thus the good intentions in choosing PR to create a more representative democracy are destroyed by an undemocratic negotiation amongst party leaders. Should a coalition situation arise under the single transferable vote system, the party leaders could theoretically refer to the second preferences of their supporters in judging where they would hope the party seek alliance.

In conclusion, the British electoral system would lose nothing and gain a great deal from adopting the single transferable vote. The only argument against it that I can see is an extra few hours counting votes in marginals on election night. I can live with that.

Old and lonely

I was very surprised recently as I read an article on the BBC website addressing the loneliness of the elderly ( The conclusions of the Help the Aged report were not in themselves surprising. If half of women over 65 are living alone, the fact that 1 million British pensioners consider themselves to be “often or always lonely” is sadly to be expected. What surprised me was the solutions the charity's report proposed:

“Amongst its recommendations, the report says the government should ensure the state pension is at a level which allows older people to live comfortable and stable lives.
Improved design of public areas, better healthcare and more provision of bereavement support are all issues which need to be tackled...”

How do these proposals stop someone feeling lonely? Better healthcare would just allow them to be lonely for longer, and how do you design a public area that encourages you to start a conversation with a pensioner? Less lighting and more blindspots might encourage the phrase “Gies yer pension!”, but beyond that I'm stumped.

Surely it's not a gigantic leap of imagination to consider that a solution to loneliness might be to invite another lonely person to stay in your home. Give a pensioner a health visitor and they will chat for an hour, give them a housemate and they can chat for a lifetime (what remains of it anyway).

Seriously though, the life of the pensioner has changed radically in the last few decades. Gone is the assumption that there will be room in your children's home for grandma. Communities have been broken up as industries have disintegrated, your family has most likely scattered around the country in search of work. If your spouse dies, you can be left terribly isolated.

The younger generation can go onto the internet flatshare websites and look for flatmates to lower their outgoings, but for the elderly the person they might share their house with is of far greater importance and less accessible if their IT skills aren't up to scratch. In my opinion this is where the government can step in. Lonely pensioners should be able to submit an in-depth profile to a government body or charity and be matched with other pensioners with similar interests, political outlook, daytime telly preferences etc. These relationships could last for 10-20 years and end in death so its very important the choice is right. It's not going to be a 1 or 2 year stay before another job opportunity opens up in another town like it is for the young folks.

Problems come with the fact that one of the sharers could well be saying goodbye to a house they have lived in for decades so there would need to be good social services support at the start to make sure no-one is taking advantage and the match is right for both parties. Perhaps trial periods could be established as routine while the mover's house is on the market. It would also not be appropriate to pair someone with care needs with someone who could meet them. The scheme would have to be seen as a way of helping healthy pensioners stay healthy.

The advantages to sharing are potentially massive for the sharers and for the economy as a whole. Those wishing to share can choose to either be sellers, who are happy to sell their old home and have a massive cash boost, or live-in landlords who can supplement their pension with a handy regular rent payment. Disposable income sky-rockets for both parties, and if this is rolled out around the country, we might just receive a nice boost out of recession. House prices would of course fall further but would it be worth it for affordable housing and a happy, healthy elderly?

It is important that this is just an option for people. There should be no penalty for those who are happy on their own. The current levels are £90.70 a week for a single person and £145.05 a week for a couple. I'm not sure any scheme such as I have proposed would need any more incentive than a promise that sharing would not jeopardise your single person rate.

1.5 million older people don't look forward to Christmas at all. That's just sad. Something needs to be done!