Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Guest Post: Setting the Record and Sex Trafficking - A Critique by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon

I am delighted and privileged to host a guest post by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Reader in Psychology and Social Policy at Birkbeck College, the University of London.

Belinda is a leading academic authority on sex work policy and the author of The Price of Sex: Prostitution, Policy and Society. She was a Liberal Democrat candidate at the last General Election, and she is also a Patron of Westminster Skeptics.

Setting the Record is an attempt to work how many trafficked migrant sex workers there are in England and Wales, and where they come from.

Police visited 142 premises meeting 254 sex workers in the process. These comprised 210 migrant women and 44 British Nationals. The data show that 24 sex working women were ‘trafficked migrants’, 113 were ‘vulnerable migrants’ and 73 women were not either the trafficked or vulnerable.

Nobody had been kidnapped or imprisoned and the research identified few individuals subject to violence.

There is therefore a drop since 1998 when 71 trafficked women were known to the police. The hard data shows little has changed despite hysteria over trafficking numbers. The report aims to be ‘more nuanced’ with the new ‘vulnerable’ category and there is laudable recognition of the diverse reasons for choosing sex work and volition of migrants. It states: ‘for some, selling sex is the result of a conscious, rational and independent assessment of the available options, and working in the UK is seen as a relatively safe and profitable place’ (p32).

The rest of the report however has data collection methods and figures so weird and wonderful they could be at the end of the pier.

It is an example of the perils of lack of peer-review, and contains the most nonsensical multipliers and whacky extrapolations I have read since the unintentionally hilarious attempt produced by the Home Office.

There is no critical review of previous research to expose flaws in previous research and avoid making the same mistakes.

Unfortunately flawed assumptions are repeated, for example the discredited assertion that 56% of trafficked women suffer PTSD.

The authors attempt to work out the number of premises and sex workers from newspaper, internet and telephone kiosk adverts, presumably copying flotsam containing the same daft data collection, which has been extensively criticized.

Past research to estimate the sex worker population as a Fermi problem is looked to for ‘corroboration’ only after the worst is done.

From the adverts they tried, unsuccessfully, to remove duplicates. The number of businesses identified was multiplied by the number of beds and multiplied again because of shift patterns. It might have been more logical, given that women may work at two different establishments on different days, to divide rather than multiplying here.

Attempts to get data from ten regions failed, leaving only six so essential data on nearly half the country is missing. There was no data from the North West or North East region. There is distorted data from the South East and Eastern region where duplicates could not be removed. Because of the variety of systems in law enforcement areas across England and Wales different data collection methods occurred in each region and it was wholly unsystematic.

The methods lack reliability, as the police were allowed flexibility to make a judgement on their observations as to the likely presence of vulnerability indicators, this introduces bias and there is no inter-rater reliability on any of the measures.

Representativeness of the sample is claimed but the variables or demographic factors on which the women are claimed to be representative of others in the sex industry are not given.

There are no concrete examples of any of the vague categories or indicators given.

Dangerous unsupported assumptions about the uniformity of coercion levels are made in the absence of any data: ‘there is insufficient volume of data to determine whether regional differences exist in coercion methods. It has therefore been assumed that coercion methods and levels are uniform across the country’ (p25).

The statistical test Pearson’s Product Moment Coefficient was used to correlate the number of premises and police officer numbers and the arbitrary removal of inconvenient outliers and all the London data would ring alarm bells in the editorial office of most academic journals.

Despite claims of objectivity there is bias that: ‘this report examines organised, and thus illegal, forms of prostitution’ (p10). However, recent acquittal shows that organized sex work is not inherently criminal.

The ethics of Setting the Record as a piece of research have to be questioned, as well as the storage and use of sex workers’ personal details, coming as it does just two weeks after the sex workers were ‘named and shamed’ by the Metropolitan Police website publishing sex workers’ personal data.

Recent reports, like the one from the World AIDS Foundation, suggest from a pragmatic harm reduction stance, that violence against women can only be addressed in a fully decriminalized system.

Setting the Record is not as woefully inadequate as previous ACPO-related reports such as Brain et al, critiqued by Helen Self but it falls far short of basic research stardards.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

Monday, 30 August 2010

What is liberalism?

As this blog puports to be a liberal blog, I suppose I had better at some point define what I mean by liberalism.

So here goes.

My first part of the definition is to say what I do not mean by being a liberal.

It does not (necessarily) mean electoral support for the Liberal Democrats.

I supported the Liberal Democrats at the last general election, and I intend to support them at the elections to come.

But Liberal Democrat policy can (in my view) be illiberal. For example, I fail to see how transferring powers to EU institutions over which there is little democratic control accords with a liberal approach.

Nor does liberalism mean libertarianism.

I sometimes say on Twitter that a libertarian is a liberal who still lives with their parents.

But this may be a little unfair.

A possibly better definition is that whilst a liberal accepts the possible need for government and law in any given situation, a libertarian will not do so unless it is strictly necessary.

For a liberal, the question is perhaps how much government and law is required; for a libertarian the question instead seems to be whether government and law is needed at all.

Furthermore, the liberalism I support does not have the US sense, which appears to me to be that of a social democratic approach within the confines of a distinct constitutional and federal framework.

And liberalism also contrasts with conservatism, in that the former admits the possibility of improvement by way of government and law, whilst the latter broadly denies the possibility that government and law can make anything better, only less worse.

So what do I mean by liberalism?

Well, in the first instance I am seeking to invoke the liberalism of John Stuart Mill and of other Victorian liberal thinkers.

For although, they were (sadly) often quite earnest - and those that try and improve things do tend to be rather earnest - they were generally right, whilst those who were more superficially attractive - such as Disraeli and Salisbury - were generally wrong.

But it is more than mere Victorian nostalgia.

Liberalism is not some Victorian doctrine (say, like, Marxism) struggling to adapt to a very different world.

For me, liberalism is the presumption in favour of the autonomy of natural persons in any given situation.

As such it is a doctrine which can be applied in political, economic, social, ethical, and religious contexts.

The liberal endorses an individual's autonomy unless there is a greater public interest in interfering with that autonomy.

And any such interference - whether by legal instrument, the coercion of state power, the intrusion of the press, or the imposition of a value system - should only go as far as is required and should always be open to question and challenge.

In this way liberalism accepts as problematic the various situations where the individual and the wider public interest clash.

The liberal does not have the easy answers available to the conservative or the socialist on one hand (with their respective presumptions against progress and in favour of state power) or to the libertarian or the anarchist on the other (with their denials of the general efficacy of government and law).

Liberalism is the only doctrine which both values human autonomy but also accepts its limitations, and which regards government and law as potentially good things.

Flowing from this priority placed on human autonomy then come the more practical applications of liberalism: due process, equality and diversity, freedom of expression on public matters, a private space on personal matters, free movement of peoples, internationalism, free trade, an evidenced-based approach to policy and law making, and so on.

Each of practical applications are also good in themselves, and (only) in a liberal framework do each of these applications cohere with the others.

And so this is why I am a liberal.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Toilets, the Transgendered, and the Law

To what extent should the law regulate which toilet a transgendered person can use?

Should equality law enable transgendered people to use the toliet of their choice, in respect of either public toilets or toilets on private premises (eg, pubs and restaurants)?

Or should the law relating to, say, breaches of the peace be used to prevent transgendered people, especially male to female (MTF), intruding into the "space" reserved for a particular gender?

These questions are prompted by a Twitter exchange I had today with campaigner Christine Burns following yesterday's blogpost on the extent to which the law should regulate how one dresses.

(The exchange is here.)

Any thoughts?


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Screw the law, let's get naked!

To what extent should the law regulate how we dress?

At one extreme, there is the proposal by Conservative MP Phillip Hollobone that Islamic full-face veils (specifically, the niqab and the burqa) be prohibited.

And at the other extreme, Steve Gough, the "Naked Rambler", is currently serving a 21 month sentence for "contempt of court", the latest of a number of legal sanctions which he has endured.

Mr Gough's series of legal problems seem to arise not from any law that actually bans nakedness, but by the use of laws regarding "breaching the peace" and "contempt of court".

But should it be a legal matter at all?

The decision as to how one wishes to present oneself to the world can be regarded as a private matter and (sometimes) a public matter.

It is a private matter in that how (or, indeed, if) one dresses is a matter fundamental to one's sense of personal autonomy.

It is perhaps a public matter in that one's appearance can be an exercise of one's right to free expression; it is also, arguably, a public matter as other people may not wish to see how one is dressed (a burqa) or not dressed (nakedness).

In both its private and public aspects, the liberal starting point is that an individual should be able to do what they want, unless there is a wider public interest in them not doing so.

And, in my view, mere offence is not sufficient to rebut the presumption in favour of individual autonomy in the case of either a burqa or a naked rambler.

But what is sufficient?

Or should there be no rules at all?

Steve Gough has reportedly been told that he may spend the rest of his life in prison.

Presumably, a prohibtion on wearing a burqa would have the same practical effect, and a determined burqa wearer would face similar punishments and incarceration.

What has happened to Steve Gough and what could happen to a burqa wearer under prohibition is surely more offensive to any sensible person than nakedness or a full-face veil.

Steve Gough is still in prison: his official website is here, with details of how you can write to him in support.

(I owe the title of this blogpost to a suggestion by @rengox on Twitter.)


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Cats, Wheelie Bins, and the Law

The video footage of a person placing a cat into a wheelie bin is disgusting to watch.

On the face of it, the relevant offence would be section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

The relevant provisions seem to be:

(1)A person commits an offence if—

(a)an act of his, or a failure of his to act, causes an animal to suffer,
(b)he knew, or ought reasonably to have known, that the act, or failure to act, would have that effect or be likely to do so,
(c)the animal is a protected animal, and
(d)the suffering is unnecessary.


(3)The considerations to which it is relevant to have regard when determining for the purposes of this section whether suffering is unnecessary include—

(a)whether the suffering could reasonably have been avoided or reduced;
(b)whether the conduct which caused the suffering was in compliance with any relevant enactment or any relevant provisions of a licence or code of practice issued under an enactment;
(c)whether the conduct which caused the suffering was for a legitimate purpose, such as—
(i)the purpose of benefiting the animal, or
(ii)the purpose of protecting a person, property or another animal;
(d)whether the suffering was proportionate to the purpose of the conduct concerned;
(e)whether the conduct concerned was in all the circumstances that of a reasonably competent and humane person.

The relevant Crown Prosecution Service guidance is here and the RSPCA prosecution policy is here.

A number of media source have quoted the West Midlands Police as saying no crime has been committed and that the matter has been referred to the RSPCA.

I am not an expert on animal cruelty law, but I am not sure that is correct, as the provision under which the RSPCA would bring any prosecution is part of the criminal law.

As a catlover, there is part of me which wants to convert my disgust into a prosecution.

(There is part of me which wants to do at lot worse.)

However, the person involved still has an entitlement to due process and the presumption of innocence.

The various "hate" sites and calls for vigilante action are inappropriate.

In a liberal society, even those who do the most dreadful and vile things should not be thrown to the mob.

And this is true even of Mary Bale.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Is there a WikiLeaks Cult?

Since the news emerged at the weekend about the allegations being made against Julian Assange, there has been a general sense of shock and disbelief.

The correct approach, of course, is to allow due process to take its course; for Mr Assange to have the benefit of the presumption of innocence; for the complainants in turn to be accorded respect as anyone complaining of a rape or molestation should be accorded respect; and for the rest of us not to jump to assumptions about the culpability or credibility of anyone involved.

However, since the news emerged, there appears to me that there is a couple of worrying aspects as to the reaction of some supporters of WikiLeaks.

First, and without any evidence whatsoever, there has been repeated claims of US government involvement.

The reason this conspiracy theory is concerning is that those who support WikiLeaks often claim that its role is to place documentation into the public domain for other people to consider and form their own conclusions.

Thereby, in the circumstances, it is at least odd for some supporters of WikiLeaks to assert as truth a theory which has (as yet) no evidential basis at all.

It makes one wonder what credibility such supporters have when they tell us what certain leaked documents mean, for these supporters seem complete strangers to any evidence-based approach themselves.

Indeed, some WikiLeaks supporters seem nothing more than knee-jerk conspiracy theorists.

Second, a minority of WikiLeaks supporters seem to find it appropriate that they should now smear and dig dirt on the complainants.

The assumption is that the complainants "must be" lying and have improper motives.

However, this is (in my view) a deeply sexist and unacceptable assumption.

And it is ironic that the only smears which can actually be documented so far are not of the US government smearing Mr Assange, but of some WikiLeaks supporters smearing the complainants.

WikiLeaks is a good thing. Whatever the outcome of the current investigation, any sensible person hopes that WikiLeaks thrives.

The complaints are being investigated; they may be dropped; or there may be charges.

It is too early for anyone to tell.

But if the enemies of WikiLeaks had actually wished to bring discredit on it with some smearing conspiracy, then they would not have brought WikiLeaks as much discredit as some of its supporters have managed by themselves in the last few days.

Are the conspiracy theories and the misogynist rubbishing of complainants really necessary?

Do some of its supporters really have to behave as if WikiLeaks is just a cult?


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Ray Gosling and "A Waste of Time"

On 15 February 2010, an Inside Out documentary was was broadcast in the East Midlands.

In the broadcast, the veteran journalist and gay rights activist Ray Gosling appeared to make an emotive but vague confession.

You can see it here.

Last week the Crown Prosecution Service announced it was advising that Mr Gosling be prosecuted for the offence of wasting police time:

"The Special Crime Division of the Crown Prosecution Service has advised Nottinghamshire Police that television presenter Ray Gosling should be prosecuted for wasting police time. Mr Gosling was served with a summons for that offence today.

"Helen Allen, senior lawyer in the Special Crime Division, said: "Mr Gosling was arrested by Nottinghamshire Police on suspicion of murder following his appearance in a television programme in which he confessed to killing a former lover who was dying of AIDS.

""He was interviewed several times by the police and detectives conducted an extensive investigation into the allegation. The police were in contact with the CPS during the investigation and a file was passed to the Special Crime Division on 28 July 2010.

""The police established that there was sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of proving that Mr Gosling's confession was false and asked the CPS to consider whether he should be prosecuted for wasting police time, given the amount of work they had to carry out to establish what had happened.

""After careful consideration of all the evidence I decided that Mr Gosling should be prosecuted for wasting police time and advised the police to obtain a summons to that effect. The summons for him to appear before Nottingham magistrates on 14 September 2010 was served on Mr Gosling when he answered his police bail today."

The offence for which Mr Gosling is now summoned is set out in section 5(2) of the Criminal Law Act 1967.

The offence is as follows:

"Where a person causes any wasteful employment of the police by knowingly making to any person a false report tending to show that an offence has been committed, or to give rise to apprehension for the safety of any persons or property, or tending to show that he has information material to any police inquiry, he shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for not more than six months or to a fine of not more than two hundred pounds or to both."

The CPS guidance on when the offence should be prosecuted is here.

The relevant section reads:

"Proceedings may only be instituted by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions: s.5(3). Consent may be granted after charge but must be before a plea of guilty is entered or summary trial. Consent must be obtained before proceedings are started by way of summons.

"Examples of the type of conduct appropriate for a charge of wasting police time include:

-false reports that a crime has been committed, which initiates a police investigation;
-the giving of false information to the police during the course of an existing investigation.

"The public interest will favour a prosecution in any one of the following circumstances:-

-police resources have been diverted for a significant period (for example 10 hours);
a substantial cost is incurred, for example a police helicopter is used or an expensive scientific examination undertaken;
-when the false report is particularly grave or malicious;
-considerable distress is caused to a person by the report;
-the accused knew, or ought to have known, that police resources were under particular strain or diverted from a particularly serious inquiry;
-there is significant premeditation in the making of the report;
-the report is persisted in, particularly in the face of challenge."

The CPS prosecution decision seems counter-intuitive, and indeed it is problematic in a number of ways.

First, a piece to camera which is subsequently broadcast does not seem to me to be a "report" within the meaning of the offence.

Although the 1967 Act does not require the report to be to a police officer, for the word "report" to be extended to include such a broadcast piece seems to stretch the word to the point of meaninglessness.

Second, it is not clear that the content of what Mr Gosling said was sufficiently precise for it to be a statement "tending to show that an offence has been committed".

In fact, it seems too vague to be a report of an offence, if it is even a report in the first place.

Third, the offence requires mens rea (a guilty intention) the time the "report" is made; there is no evidence available that such an intention was present at the time of the actus reus (culpable act).

And fourth, apart from all the above, one cannot easily see the public interest in prosecuting Mr Gosling.

The last thing which seems to be appropriate in these circumstance is the use of the coercive force of the law against Mr Gosling.

It appears that this is another misconceived and illiberal decision of the CPS, an entity of course which believes it is somehow in the public interest to prosecute Paul Chambers, but did not bring any charges at all against the thug PC Simon Harwood whose assault on Ian Tomlinson preceded his victim's sudden death.

All round, the prosecution of Mr Gosling appears flawed and contrary to the public interest.

Indeed, it seems to be an injustice in the making.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Death of Dr David Kelly

Recent media coverage in respect of the death of Dr David Kelly places the layperson in a difficulty.

On one hand, we have the respected and sensible writer David Aaronovitch in his Voodoo Histories assuring us that there is nothing to worry about. (See his Times article here for a taste of his approach.)

He is joined today by the incisive Nick Cohen, a good friend of this Blog, who emphasises the role of the media in bringing about the apparent suicide.

And that the death was a suicide is backed up by Nicholas Hunt, the pathologist who actually carried out the post-mortem examination, who is quoted as saying:

"I felt very, very sorry for David Kelly and the way he had been treated by the government... I had every reason to look for something untoward and would dearly love to have found something.

"It was an absolute classic case of self-inflicted injury. You could illustrate a textbook with it."


A group of seemingly eminent medical professionals and experienced coroners have stated that there are unanswered questions about the cause of death.

In particular, they are quoted as saying:

"Insufficient blood would have been lost to threaten life. Absent a quantitative assessment of the blood lost and of the blood remaining in the great vessels, the conclusion that death occurred as a consequence of haemorrhage is unsafe."

I do not think any of their points are self-evidently fanciful or bizarre. Their backgrounds do not suggest that they are crackpot conspiracy theorists.

And to simply say there are questions outstanding, of course, is not to in any way endorse a conspiracy theory.

So what should the layperson do when faced with such conflicting information?

I would suggest the correct response is to call for a proper inquest.

The conclusions of distinguished writers such as Aaronovitch and Cohen are important, as are the quoted views of the pathologist who examined the body; but to put the question beyond reasonable doubt surely requires a public inquest by a coroner.

And it was undoubtedly a mistake for one not to have taken place.

UPDATE - the Hutton Report's detailed account of the death is here.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Rape Allegations and Due Process

News is breaking that Julian Assange of Wikileaks has been charged[* see below] with rape and molestation by Swedish prosecuting authorities.

The timing and nature of this news seems somewhat convenient for the US government.

But we must be careful not to jump to the conclusion that it must be a smear.

There is reportedly a charge, and not just an allegation.

And there is presumably a complainant, or someone in respect of whom there is evidence behind the charge which has been made.

For us to assume too easily that the allegation "must" be false would thereby be to disbelieve the complainant or to deny that evidence.

It may even be to brand the complainant as a "liar" on the basis of our own prejudices and political values.

The better response to this emerging news is not to jettison our liberal value of taking allegations of rape seriously and treating the alleged victim with appropriate respect.

Instead, due process should be followed.

If it is a smear, then that will become apparent as the evidence is presented and tested.

And if it is not a smear, then we have not discredited the complainant or the evidence in advance.

The defendant should now have the presumption of innocence until proved guilty; and during this process, assumptions about culpability and credibility, either of the defendant or the alleged victim, should not be too readily made by the rest of us.

Any rape allegation should be taken seriously and properly investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted with due process.

And that includes this one.


*"The charges are without basis and their issue at this moment is deeply disturbing." - Julian Assange

This was the only quote from someone directly involved I had when I posted the breaking story. I recall that CNN also used the word "charge" when I linked to it.

It now appears that Assange was wrong in using the word "charge" himself and that the word warrant was correct.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

The Sex Lives of Footballers

A tabloid newspaper complains that the courts have now granted two injunctions to protect the private lives of footballers.

On the face of it, these injunctions raise "free speech" issues: they are injunctions granted by the courts to prevent the mainstream media publishing something it otherwise would want to publish.

However, this view may be misconceived.

Two hallmarks of a free and civilised society are free debate on public issues and protection of privacy for individuals.

My own commitment to libel reform has nothing to do with enabling the mainstream media greater freedom to intrude into private lives; instead, it is to free public debates - about health, science, safety, the conduct of corporations and of police officers and other officials in the discharge of their duties - from the deadening effect of the threats of libel actions.

But the non-exposure of the sex lives of footballers, soap stars and other celebrities does not represent any significant free speech issue.

For me, the libel reform campaign is not about promoting the interests of the mainstream media.

That may be an effect of the campaign in certain situations, but it is not an objective.

Libel reform is instead about providing individuals with information on matters of public interest.

And however the concept of public interest may be defined, it is difficult to see mere intrusions into private life as being any component of it.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

Friday, 20 August 2010

The Injustices of Siôn Jenkins

When I was first training to be a lawyer, I attended as a "mini-pupil" (a form of internship or work experience) the original trial in Lewes of Siôn Jenkins.

This was back in 1998 and I was shadowing someone in the defence team.

I only attended the trial for a day or two, and I have never heard the full case against him or the entirety of his defence; I have not attended any of the appeal hearings; and, indeed, I have had no involvement in the case whatsoever since that visit to Lewes twelve years ago.

And if I was ever privy to any details of the case other than those in the public domain, I have completely forgotten them.

But what I do remember is my entirely subjective sense that there was a severe miscarriage of justice in the original conviction of Siôn Jenkins.

In The Guardian today, there is an interesting interview with the now acquitted Siôn Jenkins.

In this he makes the fair point that English criminal law does not provide for any means to prove innocence, even though this is the standard seemingly required for compensation for his period of (in my view) wrongful imprisonment.

Regardless of whether one is correct in seeing the original trial as an injustice, it appears to me that for him now not to have compensation is a new and fresh injustice.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.