Should Keith Vaz step down as chair of the home affairs committee?

The Guardian, Monday 5 September 2016

Joan Smith: ‘It’s hard to think of a more blatant conflict of interest’

Public attitudes to prostitution are changing. In Sweden, where what’s known as the Nordic model of prostitution policy was first introduced, a majority of the public now regards paying for sex as a form of abuse. Women and men who sell sex no longer face criminal sanctions but, crucially, people who buy it do.

In this country, we still have out-of-date laws that criminalise vulnerable individuals who are in reality victims of a vast commercial sex industry. That’s one of the reasons why many of us would like to see a sex buyers’ law introduced in the UK, forcing men who drive this trade (and it is mostly men) to face up to their responsibilities.

The Labour MP Keith Vaz chairs a powerful House of Commons committee that has been holding an inquiry into this key area of public policy. It has heard evidence from a number of organisations that support the Nordic model, yet no one knew that a change in the law may – if the allegations in the Sunday Mirror are true – affect the committee’s chair directly.

That’s why these claims, no matter how luridly they have been presented, are in a different category from other stories exposing the private activities of well-known people. To take a recent example, the argument for publishing details of the sexual relationships of the former culture secretary, John Whittingdale, was undermined by the fact that there was no clear evidence they had affected the way he did his job.

Vaz’s situation is very different from Whittingdale’s. To put it bluntly, he appears to have chaired hearings where campaigners proposed a change in the law that could, in theory, turn his own private behaviour into a criminal offence. This is jaw-dropping stuff, and it’s hard to think of a more blatant conflict of interest.

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