Peers have inflicted a defeat on the Government in backing a crackdown on “sex-for-rent” predators.
The House of Lords supported by 206 votes to 176, majority 30, the creation of a new offence, amid concerns the existing law was failing vulnerable victims of such exploitation.
The upper chamber also backed without a vote a move to target those who facilitate adverts for the illegal practice with the threat of a £50,000 fine.
Although confirmed as a sexual offence in 2017, the upper chamber heard just one person had been charged in a sex-for-rent case and only as recently as last year.
Proposing the amendment to the Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, Labour frontbencher Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede said: “The law itself has been made extremely difficult for sex for rent victims to seek justice.
“According to the law, victims must be legally defined as a prostitute, which is a huge deterrent in their access to justice.
“Another reason why this scandal continues virtually unchecked is that landlords are able to advertise sex for rent in their properties very easily.”
Predators online attempt to coerce men and women to exchange sex for a home by exploiting their financial vulnerabilities
He was supported by Labour peer Baroness Kennedy of Cradley, director of the campaign group Generation Rent who said: “Predators online attempt to coerce men and women to exchange sex for a home by exploiting their financial vulnerabilities.
“They have used the economic effects of the pandemic as a marketing technique.”
Despite only one charge being brought, she highlighted research that indicated the practice was widespread with one poll estimating a quarter of a million women had been asked for sexual favours in exchange for free or discounted rent.
Lady Kennedy said: “This is a crime that goes on openly and explicit through adverts on online platforms.
“Yet despite the adverts being clear in their intention, they go unchecked.
“They’re placed without consequence.
“They’re largely ignored by law enforcement and the online platform providers.”
She added: “No one should ever be forced by coercion or circumstance to exchange sex for her home.
“There is a housing emergency in this country, it continues to hit new lows, so low that sexual predators can deliberately take advantage of people’s desperation to find a home.”
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames agreed there was “a serious need for criminal legislation to stop what is a particularly nasty form of predatory behaviour”.
Responding, Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford said: “It’s an abhorrent phenomenon, which takes advantage of very vulnerable people, and it doesn’t have any place in our society.”
Pointing out cases of sex for rent could be prosecuted under existing legislation, she said: “Action will be taken against the landlords that exploit vulnerable people.
“This behaviour is simply not tolerated.”
In a later Government defeat, peers backed a move to enable the immediate introduction of exclusion zones around schools and vaccination centres to prevent harassment by anti-vaxxers.
The Lords voted by 157 to 145, majority 12, for a Labour measure allowing the fast-tracking of public spaces protection orders, which can be used to disperse people from a designated area.