Wera Hobhouse MP writes…A step forward in fighting “sex for rent”

When I first came across the practice of ‘sex for rent’, I was appalled. Why do people end up in a truly awful and exploitative situation with a landlord which clearly should be against the law?

We know that sex for rent is a widespread problem. A YouGov poll says that 250,000 women in the UK had been offered reduced or free rent in exchange for sexual favours in the past five years. Yet as a crime it is under-reported and there are next to no prosecutions. 

It is already against the law to advertise sex for rent on pillar boxes or in the print media. One of the main problems has been that there are no clear legal guidelines to stop this vile practice for online advertising platforms.

Yesterday I received some good news. After I spent some time working in Parliament behind the scenes, the Crown Prosecution Service informed me that they will issue new guidelines in the new year ‘on sex for rent arrangements and advertising. There will be no distinction between off-line and online advertising’. It should then make it easier for the police and the courts to prosecute those who advertise online which has so far been a loophole.

And once we have some successful prosecutions then hopefully this should act as a deterrent for those who try and advertise for an arrangement that is cruel abusive and exploitative.

Most people see the work of an MP through the lens of a press story, or perhaps in 240 words on Twitter. I thought I’d share with you the steps I went through to achieve this change.

I first asked a question in Parliament on the subject, with the objective of getting a meeting with a minister. Ministerial diaries are incredibly full, and so getting a meeting is a big opportunity to make your case. During that meeting it was established that changing the guidelines for the CPS would be a step in the right direction.

What helped was that this issue was originally raised by the BBC over a year ago and at that point taken up by the Labour MP Peter Kyle. Therefore the government at least knew about the issue and the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd had taken an interest and created ‘a work stream’. After meeting with the Minister of Justice I subsequently met with Amber Rudd as well, (in the interim before she became the Work and Pensions Secretary of State). She suggested that it was time for a Select Committee to consider looking into the wider issue surrounding sex for rent. This is clearly necessary because the issue is complex. Once people are trapped into these awful situations they feel unable to extract themselves from it. They get locked into a spiral of fear, not knowing whether they themselves are actually committing a crime. They fear retribution from exploitative landlords and have nowhere else to live.

What has made me particularly frustrated once I got into the subject was that, despite some cross-party consensus, it seems that in over a year since the issue was first raised in parliament not much has happened. Clearly the Home Office has not talked to the Ministry of Justice. Hopefully the renewed effort and getting either the Women and Equalities or the Home Office Select Committees to take up the issue – I have spoken to both chairs, Maria Miller and Yvette Cooper – will allow us to stamp out this terrible and exploitative crime for good.

* Wera Hobhouse is the Member of Parliament for Bath. She is Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Communities and Local Government, and is on the Brexit Select Committee.

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