We must fight back against this abuse, writes Peter Kyle MP (pictured)
An internet search for ‘free accommodation’ brings up hundreds of ads such as these: ‘Sofa bed free for homeless girl’, ‘Share my bed for free’, ‘Free room for woman, 18-30’, ‘Seeking female housemate, no bills, £0’.
The advertisements, mostly placed via the online small-ads service Craigslist, are as sick and brazen as they appear. Predators are offering rooms or beds for free to young people, usually women, in return for sex.
And although both the website and the Government are aware it is going on, they are not making the slightest effort to prevent it.
Men openly include their phone numbers, and sometimes their names and addresses, or even their photographs – yet not one in this country has been arrested and prosecuted.
These sex offenders are so blatant, even Inspector Clouseau could find them and lock them up. It staggers me that ministers will not take action.
When a journalist alerted me to the practice, and the dangers it poses to vulnerable young people, I hesitated to believe it. The evidence on the screen seemed too outrageous, and I took some convincing that it wasn’t a hoax.
I could not understand how the law allowed this to happen. In my naivety, I also assumed that, once the Government and the police were made aware of it, action would be taken.
In 2017, I wrote to then Justice Secretary David Lidington. He replied that offering to accept sex in lieu of rent was an incitement to prostitution and so was illegal under Section 52 of the 2003 Sexual Offences Act.
Research suggests 30,000 women in UK have been propositioned with ‘sex for rent’ since March (stock image)
Fredrick Allard, 70, sent texts demanding massages in exchange for accommodation in his six-bedroom Wiltshire home
But six months later, nothing had been done. The Ministry of Justice had not provided me with evidence that any perpetrators had been brought to justice or given so much as a caution.
I challenged the Government, asking why it was not enforcing the law, and I wrote to then Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
She set up a meeting, and was as horrified as I had been. A Home Office inquiry was instigated, but this has disappeared with no action taken.
Subsequent home secretaries Sajid Javid and Priti Patel have failed to engage with me to tackle the issue.
Any work done to date has been simply ditched. It is incredibly frustrating. There are three steps that should be urgently taken.
Former developer Fredrick Allard 70 offered a bedroom in his six bedroom Wiltshire house in exchange for weekly erotic massages
A room in Edinburgh that was offered to an undercover reporter in exchange for sex, by David Price
First, ministers must make sure the law as it stands is enforced. This is a clear offence and it is endemic thanks to a shortage of cheap accommodation, especially in university cities.
Second, the law has to be changed so those putting out adverts to exploit people in this manner are guilty of a standalone offence.
At the moment, incitement to prostitution carries a prison tariff but it also imposes a label on the victim. For a perpetrator to be found guilty, the young woman or man he exploits will become defined in law as a prostitute.
It is completely understandable that with the law as it stands, victims of this crime prefer not to press charges.
Who would want to come forward and go through that sort of trauma, especially in a test case likely to attract media attention? Make no mistake, this is abuse and exploitation.
Victims can leave, but then they might be homeless. They can’t turn to friends and family for help without admitting how they have been living. They frequently find themselves in a deeply unpleasant trap with no obvious means of escape.
Lyndon Savage offered to share his one bedroom flat with undercover reporters and give them £150 per week in exchange for sexual favours
Craigslist executives could address the issue right now, but they are showing not the slightest degree of concern. That’s why the third thing I am calling for is for the Government to bring the Californian tech company to heel immediately.
Craigslist’s managers refuse to acknowledge my phone calls, emails and letters.
I feel a special venom towards this arrogant company. It seems that Silicon Valley tech bosses facilitate these awful crimes on their website but ministers just go weak at the knees instead of taking them to task. If we continue to allow this scandal to fester, countless others will be entrapped, abused and endangered. The time has come to take a stand.
- Peter Kyle is Labour spokesman for victims and youth justice