The UK’s biggest nursing union will lobby ministers to decriminalise sex work after a landmark motion was passed by a huge majority at its annual conference.

Louise Cahill, the nurse specialist in sexual health who was behind the proposed Royal College of Nursing (RCN) policy, said decriminalising sex work is vital if sex workers’ safety and health is to be protected.

She told the conference that sex workers avoid seeking health care for fear of prosecution, and don’t report assaults for similar reason.

Cahill said: “Current UK law makes it a criminal offence for sex workers to work together for safety. Brothel keeping is defined as just two or more sex workers working together.

“Therefore, sex workers have to choose between keeping safe and getting arrested. No one should be put in danger by the law.”

The nurse added that decriminalisation would reduce the number of HIV cases among sex workers because they could better negotiate safer sex.

She said: “Lending our voice to support a stigmatised and marginalised group was not only the right thing to do but will lead to improved health outcomes.”

Figures show that nearly nine in 10 of the estimated 70,000 sex workers in the UK are women, according to the English Collective of Prostitutes.

RCN public health lead Helen Donovan expressed frustration that the “political appetite to fund sexual health services targeting sex workers isn’t there,” but that as nurses they had a responsibility to “serve the needs of society’s most vulnerable”.

The RCN will lobby politicians in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff to push through the policy to safeguard sex workers.

But Abigail Lawrence, a nurse from the east of England, opposed the move. She described sex work as “exploitative, manipulative and based on coercion”.

New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003, but put strengthened laws against compelling or coercing people into the industry.

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Nurses to campaign for decriminalisation of sex work by Hannah Westwater

May 21, 2019