29 October 2019
In September 2016, a complaint was brought against Keith Vaz MP who was then the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) in the UK parliament. The complaint hinged on Vaz’s conflict of interests – shortly after chairing inquiries into prostitution and psychoactive drugs he was witnessed buying sex, and offering to buy cocaine for another person to use.
Yesterday the House of Commons Committee on Standards published its report into the matter. While we welcome the conclusion that Vaz acted in such a way as to cause damage to the House of Commons (in breach of paragraph 16 of the 2015 code of conduct), we are dismayed that they cleared him of the complaint about the conflict of interests between his private behaviour and his public role on the committee.
The HASC inquiry into prostitution
The prostitution inquiry that the HASC committee undertook while Vaz was chair included considering whether buying sex should be criminalised and whether any other measures are necessary to discourage male demand for prostitution.
These issues hinge on whether prostitution is harmful to the (mainly) women involved and to society more generally.
To buy sex, you must either have already decided that prostitution is not harmful to the other person or you don’t care whether it is harmful. In other words, if you are a sex buyer (punter), you have by definition already made a judgement and acted on it – and as a result you have a strong psychological imperative to deny that buying sex may be harmful. This means that someone who is a punter (particularly if habitual or recent) would have a conflict of interests if they were to be involved in any inquiry into prostitution for the benefit of the nation.
The HASC committee released an interim report on its prostitution inquiry on 1 July 2016. When I read the report, such was its bias that I was immediately convinced that it had been written by a punter.
A couple of weeks later we published a response to the report, in which we argued that being a punter is a conflict of interest and members of the committee who are punters should step down from the inquiry. We went on to document the bias of the report – for example, how it downplayed evidence of the harms that prostitution causes both to those who are in it, and to women and girls and sex equality more generally, and how it wrote off concerns about these harms as “moral values” and “emotive” reactions.
Less than two months later, on 4 September 2016, the Sunday Mirror published evidence of Vaz buying sex from two young migrant men on 27 August 2016, offering to buy cocaine for another man’s use, admitting having sex with another male ‘escort’ without a condom, and saying “Someone will need to break him tonight” about yet another male ‘escort.’
The conclusions of the Committee on Standards
The Committee on Standard’s conclusion that Vaz had acted in breach of paragraph 16 of the 2015 code of conduct was based on his offer to buy cocaine for another person’s use and his behaviour during the subsequent investigation. It was not based on his paid-for sexual use of the migrant men even though the committee concluded that on balance of probabilities Vaz had engaged in paid-for sex on 27 August and had engaged in such behaviour on previous occasions.
The committee rejected Vaz’s arguments that his behaviour on 27 August did not breach the code of conduct because it was “purely private and personal.”
However, the committee bizarrely went on to reject the complaint that Vaz should have recused himself from the inquiry on the basis that there was no certainty that he bought sex during the exact time period in which the HASC committee was conducting its inquiry into prostitution.
This is an extraordinary and shameful conclusion and it brings into question the ability of the parliamentary system to hold male members to account and to dispassionately consider practices such as prostitution that harm (mostly) women and otherwise vulnerable people while benefiting men.
Men who buy sex should not be making decisions about prostitution law – no matter whether they did it this year, last year or several years ago.
We repeat our call for the biased and partisan report that was produced by the inquiry that Vaz chaired to be scrapped. We believe that it is a stain on our democratic system that it continues to sit in the House of Commons library as if it is a serious and unbiased report when the reality is the opposite – as can be seen by its use by the sex trade lobby to justify their call for full decriminalisation of the sex trade, including brothel keeping and pimping.