Carolyn Harris: “It can never be ok in society to allow blatant abuse”
Carolyn Harris has built a reputation as an effective and shrewd campaigner in her short time in Parliament. Her latest mission, to crack down on those who profit from sexual exploitation by tackling demand, remains a divisive topic. Can she win the argument within her party for the Nordic Model? The Shadow Women’s Minister talks to Jess Phillips
When I arrive in Carolyn Harris’s office in parliament to meet her, she is sat amongst piles of paperwork, her two staff are eating their lunch and chatting and her bag is in front of her, packed ready for her return to her beloved Swansea. She throws her hands in the air in mock horror at the suggestion we take a photo there, “it’s a bloody tip”. The workspace is exactly as I would expect, industrious yet homely. This is exactly how I would also describe Carolyn – she manages to be a tough and successful campaigner, an active frontbencher and the Deputy Leader of Labour in Wales all at the same time as being everyone’s favourite auntie.
It’s hard to write this without conforming to loathsome gendered stereotypes, in trying to get her to come alive on the page, but I’ve heard Carolyn go from very firmly asserting that she is going to change a policy and there is no point in arguing, to then instantly offering to knit booties for your new baby. She definitely doesn’t conform to the idea that to get ahead in politics that you have to play a role and act like some ludicrous ideal of an assertive man. She is a nanna and the message she exudes is that nannas get stuff done, don’t mess with them.
I’m here to chat with her about her latest campaign. It’s not easy to change stuff as an opposition MP, but Carolyn Harris has shown herself as a doughty fighter since she arrived in Parliament in 2015, campaigning to change the minimum stakes on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs, or fruit machines to you and me), and to remove the costs placed on bereaved families when they have to bury a child. Both of these campaigns were born out of a desire to help people in very desperate and heart-breaking positions. She was successful in both cases. These might not seem like big broad-brush policy changes such as welfare reforms, or increased spending for the NHS, but they both speak to an understanding of desperation and a willingness to offer an arm around people who are really suffering.
Her new campaign to help people, mainly women and girls who have been sexually exploited and prostituted, is no different. Carolyn is by no means the only campaigner in parliament who wants to see a change in how women and girls sold for sex are treated by our criminal justice system. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, under the leadership of Gavin Shuker and before him Diane Abbott, have long undertaken inquiries in to these, the most vulnerable women in our society. One report from the APPG in May this year found that women were being sexually exploited “on an industrial scale” in so called ‘pop-up brothels’, usually residential properties rented for short periods by organised criminal groups.
Recommendations for many years have sought to decriminalise women and girls trafficked and exploited thanks to poverty, addiction and coercion, and instead seek charges for those who profit both financially and sexually from their misery.
These women don’t win votes, so policy in this area has been hard to change and difficult to build momentum behind. Carolyn, in her duel frontbench role as part of Labour’s Home Office team and the Women and Equalities team, hopes she can lend some of her campaigning steel to radically change policy in this area.
“When you see the women who are involved most of them are kids, or young women who through no fault of their own have got involved,” she tells me. “It’s because they have been victims most of their lives, they have been abused, they have been raped and lead down a certain path. They don’t appreciate that there are people there to help.”
Carolyn has gathered her knowledge on prostitution not from policy papers or meetings in parliament, but instead from regularly joining Safer Wales in their night bus, which provides outreach services for women being sold for sex on the streets of Swansea.
“I go out probably once a month on a bus, I’m going again this Thursday,” she explains. “I was absolutely appalled by the number of men who blatantly come to the bus where the girls are to try to do business, when we are there. Last time I was out there was an old man, probably in his 70s, who had had his PiP that day, and he was trying to get one of the girls to do it for £3. The particular girl he was talking to was one of twins and her boyfriend was clucking [going cold turkey] so she was trying to score for the two of them and was contemplating £3. She was doing the maths to see if she did five people at £3 she could probably get two bags of heroin and then go out and do more business. I was shocked at the blatancy of it!”
Anyone who campaigns on this issue will, I know, be told that women who sell sex are doing it out of choice and a chorus of women will take to the debate, on Twitter at least, and say that they are professionals with agency and capacity to choose which trade they ply. So I ask Carolyn if she had seen this in the months she has been taking part in street outreach. Had she ever met and women who felt it was a liberated choice that they were doing it?
Immediately she responds “No!” “I have not met one woman who was doing it because it was a legitimate way of making money. None of the women who I have met were even capable of making the most basic of decisions on their own lives. They have been in controlling or abusive relationships or situations for so long that they don’t know different.”
She adds: “If you get off the train at Swansea High Street you go past what is a wedding shop with wedding dresses in the window – there’s an irony there, virginal wedding dresses in the window – and then outside from about 6.30pm there is a succession of young girls and they just come and go and they are in various states of inebriation, most of them have kids and those kids are in care. When I sit and have a conversation with these girls away from this environment at the drop-in centre for probation, what scared me most is that they will tell me about situations where they have been physically or sexually abused by a punter and have accepted it because they haven’t given good service. And used those exact words. They accept the fact that if a punter hasn’t been happy with what he’s been provided with that he has a right to punish her.”
She tells me story after story of the women and girls she has met. Her empathy and concern for them is palpable. Few MPs would take to the streets month after month; you get the feeling that these stories haunt her, and that she will not quit until something is done. Her previous campaigns especially that on children’s funerals came from her own deep personal tragedy of losing her son Martin in a car accident when he was aged only eight. Her pain for these women, albeit much less personal, is every bit as real.
This however is a problem far more complicated than the elimination of a fee. To change this is a very long game. So I asked what she wants to do about it. “On a personal level,” she says with the caution of a frontbencher who needs to go through the labyrinth of approval before proposing big policies, “I want to see us punishing those who gain financially from trafficking and abusing these women. These girls are victims of abuse. This isn’t a reputable industry, this isn’t a legitimate business. You can’t unionise it. There are women who feel they are providing a service and wish to continue providing the service, that’s up to them. I want to set up 24/7 hubs for these women so they can access services that fit around their chaotic lives. But a third party should not be making money off this exploitation. We have got to reduce demand.”
Campaigners in parliament have long fought for the Nordic Model, which would decriminalise the vulnerable women, who currently face charges, but instead criminalise those who pay for sex and those who profit from prostituted women.
I ask her if this is what she wants – does she think punters should be criminalised? She answers cautiously, only too aware of the bun fight this often causes even within the Labour Party. “Anyone who takes advantage of someone’s vulnerability should be. There’s a counter argument that women are making money and if it was really consensual that’s fine, but if girls or boys have been exploited into it then that is wrong. It can never be ok in society to allow blatant abuse. Unfortunately, you can never please all the people and in order to stop this blatant immoral abuse, we have to legislate to stop it happening.”
I push again and ask in her idea of an ‘end demand’ model does she foresee punters being criminalised. To this she is clearer and says, “Yes”.
Jeremy Corbyn himself faced a backlash when he ventured into the subject early in his leadership and indicated that he supported a complete decriminalisation model that would make prostitution legal with no penalties. For what it’s worth, I genuinely think this was cock up rather than conspiracy, and that Jeremy just misunderstood what he was saying.
What Carolyn Harris is fighting for is quite different from Jeremy Corbyn’s misspeak, so I ask if her proposals for a model that supports women and criminalises punters has been hard to win in the party? “I haven’t found it hard, not really. Jeremy has been really supportive. Diane (Abbott) has been sorting a lot of it out.”
This I don’t doubt. Having Abbott, a long supporter of this approach, as her frontbench ally will certainly help her to win this controversial argument in the party. Carolyn will have won Jeremy’s support for this her latest passion, because as I’ve said, I think she will have gently and lovingly given him little choice.
As I am leaving her tip of an office to join her in Westminster Hall for some photographs, I ask her how she does it all. How does she find time to be the Deputy Leader of Welsh Labour, have two frontbench roles, run lunch clubs for kids who need feeding through the summer holidays and take on these all-consuming often painful campaigns, and still knit cardis for every baby born in Westminster. She says with characteristic sparkle: “I don’t think too much, I steam in and we are just doing it.”
Carolyn Harris, the one-time dinner lady and barmaid, lives by the maxim of most political women, ‘Deeds not Words’. Or in other words, let’s just bloody well get on with it.