The debate over prostitution has become increasingly fierce in recent years

Sex workers of the world unite in Westminster

Sex workers of the world unite in Westminster

Sex workers and experts on the sex trade will give evidence in parliament for the first time today, as part of an international symposium on decriminalisation.

Prominent academics will join sex workers from the UK, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Taiwan and Thailand as they discuss the safety of prostitutes under various government policies around the world.

The meeting was called for by shadow chancellor John McDonnell, a long-time supporter of reforming Britain's prostitution laws. Many activists hope McDonnell will now be in a position to push the issue given his sudden promotion to front bench politics.

Today's debate follows the decision by Amnesty International to back the decriminalisation of prostitution and call for governments to provide resources to women trying to leave the sex trade.

The UN, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, and the UN special rapporteur on the right to health have also called for decriminalisation, saying that current laws put sex workers in greater danger than if they could operate legally.

"I will be putting before UK parliamentarians the most up-to-date, comprehensive information which demonstrates the measurable improvements in sex workers health and safety since the Prostitution Reform Act decriminalised prostitution in 2003," , Catherine Healy, co-ordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, said.

"Government reviews of the law have found that sex workers are more able to report violence and leave prostitution as convictions are cleared from their records."

The debate over prostitution has become increasingly fierce in recent years, as supporters of the 'Nordic model', which criminalises the buying but not the selling of sex, clash with those who want full decriminalisation.

Nordic model supporters say decriminalisation leads to an increase in sex trafficking and allows pimps to exploit vulnerable women.

But sex worker groups say laws criminalising the buyers of sex put them in greater danger by driving the trade underground.

Current English and Welsh law also puts the legal pressure on the buyer of sex rather than the seller. It makes it an offence for someone to purchase sex from someone who has been subjected to "exploitative conduct". But because it is a strict liability offence, clients can be prosecuted even if they did not know the prostitute was forced.

Campaigners say this is a de-facto criminalisation of sex work which makes it impossible for the client to know if they will be prosecuted and drives the trade underground.

"Despite public opinion moving towards decriminalisation on grounds of safety, parliamentarians have been bombarded with misinformation, and pressured to follow the Sexköpslagen Swedish law which criminalised the buying of sex in 1999," Laura Watson, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, said.

"We hope that MPs charged with the weighty responsibility of making laws will want to hear evidence directly from sex workers, the experts on the ground, as well as from academics and other experts."

The debate around sex work has also been stifled by competing demands for censorship in recent years. Those supporting the Nordic model are often accused of 'whorephobia' and no-platformed from speaking on campuses, while those pushing for decriminalisation are frequently dubbed a 'pimp-lobby'.

The data presented today will include information on the safety and health of sex workers, the impact of policing and criminalisation, discriminatory implementation of the laws, the ability to leave prostitution, the impact of austerity on the numbers of people – especially women – going into prostitution, and the connection between prostitution and trafficking.

McDonnell says that a debate on criminalising clients in the Commons last year saw numerous parliamentarians approach him looking for reliable data. As a result, the symposium's findings will be put in the House of Commons library for parliamentarians to access in future.