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An FT investigation found that soaring living costs were driving more women to start or return to sex work © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The Conservative chair of the women and equalities committee will this week demand an official inquiry into the harms associated with the underground sex work industry in the UK.

A Financial Times investigation found that soaring living costs were driving more women to start or return to sex work this year.

Caroline Nokes said she would write to the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office asking them to assess the factors driving people into sex work and to outline policy proposals to improve their safety and welfare.

The weaker economic outlook has reduced demand, making it harder for sex workers to earn money and creating a more dangerous environment as women take more risks to make ends meet, according to people involved.

The women and equalities committee was due to start an inquiry into harms associated with prostitution in 2019, however, this was ultimately dropped, Nokes said. The FT’s findings should be looked at carefully by the committee, she added.

“I find it abhorrent that any woman should be forced into this kind of activity, whether it be [due to] abusive partners, drink, drugs or economic factors,” she said. “In any cost of living crisis . . . we should be taking measures to protect women, not make them more vulnerable.”

Meanwhile, Labour MP Nadia Whittome and Scottish Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine said the government should launch an inquiry into the impact of rising living costs on women and prostitution in the UK, arguing that the FT’s findings added fresh impetus to calls for a review of laws around sex work.

In the UK, the exchange of sex for money is not illegal, but most of the practices that surround the industry are: street soliciting, by both the buyer and seller; brothel keeping; and causing or inciting prostitution for gain.

While many politicians and campaigners agree the legal framework around prostitution needs to be overhauled radically, there is a split between those who want to fully decriminalise the industry and those who want to decriminalise selling sex but outlaw buying it, also known as the “Nordic model”.

Jardine, a proponent of full decriminalisation, which has been adopted in New Zealand and Belgium, said the government needed to “make sure that vulnerable sex workers who do need support with sexual health, addiction, [and] homelessness will get that”.

Whittome, also a proponent of decriminalisation, said “the key driver of sex work isn’t demand, it’s poverty”, adding that the government should look at ways to reduce women’s economic hardship, including ending benefits sanctions, imposing a moratorium on evictions as it did during the Covid-19 pandemic, and implementing rent controls.

Many women and men sell sex consensually, albeit often compelled by financial difficulties or poverty. But many others — largely women — are groomed into it and find it offensive for their exploitation to be described as “work”.

Politicians and outreach workers point out that a change to the law could help one of these groups while harming the other.

Dame Diana Johnson, a Labour MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on commercial sexual exploitation, has argued in favour of the Nordic model — adopted in Norway, Sweden, Northern Ireland and France — where the sale of sex is decriminalised to protect women but purchasing it is outlawed to reduce demand.

“Women on the street are not sex workers, they are victims of modern slavery, they’re exploited,” said fellow Labour MP Carolyn Harris, also an advocate of the Nordic model.

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