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by Kirsteen Paterson
11 March 2024
Ash Regan MSP: 'I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to make an impact'

Ash Regan MSP photographed for Holyrood by Anna Moffat

Ash Regan MSP: 'I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to make an impact'

Ash Regan has unfinished business.

The former community safety minister has launched a member’s bill seeking to reform the laws around prostitution, criminalising the purchase of sex in Scotland.

It’s work she started while serving in Nicola Sturgeon’s government, setting wheels in motion at the same time as proposals for the restriction of fireworks. But while laws on the latter came into force almost two years ago, there’s nothing new on the statute books to address the sex trade.

Currently, those selling sex can be prosecuted for crimes like soliciting and brothel keeping, but the exchange of sexual services for pay is not illegal. The Scottish Government adopted the stance that prostitution is a form of violence against women 10 years ago, and last month it published a strategy aimed at “disrupting, deterring demand and tackling its drivers”, as well as providing improved support to women affected by selling sex.

Regan says she found “resistance” to a full law change while she was in government. “I began to think that especially after 2021, which was when the Bute House Agreement was signed,” she tells Holyrood. “I managed to get the prostitution reform onto the slate, I had it at one point as early as year three, but then it kept slipping and I would look again, and it would be on year four or year five.”

Reforming prostitution laws has long been a focus for Regan, predating her 2018 appointment to government – a role she quit in 2022 over the SNP-Green administration’s stance on the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill – and indeed her election to the Scottish Parliament in 2016. When Labour’s Rhoda Grant lodged a proposal for a bill to criminalise the purchase of sex in 2012, Regan volunteered to campaign for its adoption. The bid failed for the lack of cross-party support, with only 22 Labour MSPs and a single Conservative in favour of its progress.

This was not something that the Green Party would sign up to

And so, when Regan took office she proposed her own version. One defection from the SNP to Alba later, she’s trying again, having launched her ‘Unbuyable’ campaign at a women’s conference in Glasgow late last year. She’s been taking in evidence to shape her proposal since then and an official consultation will launch shortly. To move forward Regan’s bill, once introduced, will require the support of two parties and 18 signatures from fellow MSPs. But she’s conscious that not everyone in the chamber will want to work with her, and nor will all voters back her bill.

In the party’s 2021 manifesto, the Lib Dems pledged to “decriminalise sex work in line with best international practice and the risks to those involved, and include stronger action to tackle people trafficking”. And, in their version, the Scottish Greens vowed to “fight for the decriminalisation of sex work to ensure sex workers are legally protected from exploitation, trafficking and violence and have improved access to support and healthcare”.

When the Bute House Agreement was drawn up, “the legal status and regulation of selling sex” was listed among its explicit exclusions, such is the difference in opinion on the issue between the ruling parties. Regan reveals she was one of the five per cent of SNP politicians who did not vote for that deal.

“If you look in detail at what the SNP-Green coalition government has pursued, it’s the areas where there is more policy alignment,” she says, such as the deposit return scheme and GRR, both of which fell over incursions into reserved matters. “The fireworks bill became law, and the prostitution law didn’t get to that point, which is a source of professional regret.”

So is she suggesting prostitution reforms were deprioritised by the Scottish Government as a result of the deal? “That’s what it felt like to me,” she says.

“I began to think that I was not going to be able to progress it because this was not something that the Green Party would sign up to.”

The divergence in policy among parliamentarians reflects wider differences of opinion in society. While organisations like the Scottish Women’s Convention, which advocates for women’s inclusion in policymaking, and Christian mission CARE for Scotland have expressed the view that prostitution is sexual exploitation and a form of violence against women and girls, others argue for the destigmatisation of sex work. 

To my mind, you can't improve this for people, you can't make prostitution safe

Edinburgh-based charity Scot-Pep, which advocates for the full decriminalisation of sexual services, says the Scottish Government’s current approach to the trade “drives violence against women” and existing laws are “inconsistent with reducing violence against women who sell sex”. “The ongoing criminalisation of women who sell sex through laws against soliciting and loitering for the purposes of prostitution, and laws against brothel-keeping, is at odds with the government’s own definition of sex work as a form of violence against women,” the organisation said in response to a previous government consultation on its Equally Safe strategy, which addresses commercial sexual exploitation. For its part, NUMbrella Lane, which supports those selling sex, says that “in every country where client criminalisation has been implemented, sex workers remain at high risk of violence, stigma and a lack of protection”.

“I don’t think it’s work. I don’t think we should be commodifying women’s bodies in that way; that’s abhorrent to me,” Regan says of such arguments. “I think we have to raise our sights beyond that. It is a mystery to me why the left wants to characterise it in that way.

“To my mind, you can’t improve this for people, you can’t make prostitution safe, it’s inherently dangerous.”

Days after we speak, the first minister meets with the mother of murdered sex worker Emma Caldwell, who waited almost 19 years to see her daughter’s killer brought to justice. The culprit, Iain Packer, was also jailed for sex offences against 22 other women. A public inquiry into failings in the police investigation is to be held.

In response to an approach by Holyrood about Regan’s claims, the Scottish Government said that its recent strategy to challenge male demand  for prostitution includes steps to “help women safely exit commercial sexual exploitation”, such as a pilot programme for a new national hub to improve access to support for those with experience of prostitution. “Lessons learned from the strategy will help inform any future legislative considerations, including whether to criminalise the purchase of sex,” a spokesperson said.

The October launch of Regan’s bill capped off a turbulent 12 months in which, after stepping down from government, she’d also run for the SNP leadership. She came in third after a campaign which pushed for greater transparency within the party and led to a chain of events that few could have predicted. It was Regan who led calls for the disclosure of membership numbers, which resulted in the resignation of chief executive Peter Murrell over the circulation of misleading figures. And it was Regan’s second preference votes which ultimately secured victory for Humza Yousaf, not Kate Forbes, by a margin of four per cent.

I’m not sure why Humza wanted to be first minister because I don’t see the vision of what he wants to do with it

Her party switch was announced by Alba leader, former first minister Alex Salmond, in a conference speech, and Yousaf said she was “no great loss” to his side. Regan in turn has criticised the SNP on, yes, its handling of issues around attempted gender reforms, but also independence, claiming that it has lost its focus on that goal. Regan produced a draft bill to that effect which makes provision for a public vote asking Scots whether Holyrood’s powers should be extended to allow it to negotiate and legislate for independence.

Regan has said it creates a “clear, achievable and coherent roadmap towards independence” and is backed up by legal opinion from Aidan O’Neill KC, who told Alba that such a referendum is arguably within parliamentary competence.

She recently pressed Independence Minister Jamie Hepburn on what the government is doing to advance the cause of independence, save from its growing Building a New Scotland series of position papers. The latest, on international affairs, was published last week. “Papers can be produced by anyone. What the independence movement wants at this point is action,” she said in the chamber, asking, “what is the point of a pro-independence majority if it is not used to pursue independence?”

“It just looks like they are drifting,” Regan tells Holyrood. “There’s no plan.

“I’m not sure why Humza wanted to be first minister because I don’t see the vision of what he wants to do with it.”

The SNP’s current approach to ending the Union – securing a majority of Scottish seats at the general election – is not “credible”, she says. “We are not able to put something forward to Westminster and not be voted down” and Holyrood is “obviously where we should be looking”, she says of pro-independence politicians. “With a pro-independence majority we can’t be outvoted here.”

Alba has no whips

Regan says she’s “dismayed” that fellow MSPs are “not willing to take a serious look” at her plan. Writing to all 128 others about the draft bill, she had a very limited response. “I had one very nice response from a Conservative saying they hoped I understood but they wouldn’t be taking up my offer of a meeting,” she says, and “a couple of SNP colleagues talking to me informally” to tell her that while it’s “quite a good idea” they “can’t support it publicly”. The government “could pick up this ball themselves,” she goes on. “I’ve said I’m happy to donate this bill to them – it doesn’t have to be in my name, it doesn’t have to be about party politics.

“When I talk to people about what’s gone on in here, the most common refrain from [people] outside is ‘my goodness, that seems like schoolchildren’,” she says, speaking about the reaction  to her defection.

There was consternation over where her office would be, with the Scottish Greens raising concerns over moves to give her space near that party’s MSPs due to staff concerns about her GRR stance. And there was a suggestion, Holyrood is told, that she should be placed in the basement office created for former SNP minister Mark McDonald following the sexual harassment row that cost him his party membership. “Unacceptable,” Regan comments, pursing her lips.

It has been, she says, “a big change going from being in the largest party with 60-odd members to being in a party by yourself”. “The one good thing I can report,” she jokes, “is that Alba has no whips.”

But Regan insists that she is “part of a team, even if that team is not all here”. She was pleased to find that her MP colleagues Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey saw the same need as she did to respond swiftly to the announcement of closure plans for the Ineos plant at Grangemouth, which will affect hundreds of jobs, saying it was “very obvious that is what you would do if you were standing up for Scotland”. 

She sees herself as both a campaigner and strategist and her switch to Alba as one that is true to the pro-independence mandate upon which she was elected.

I’m not here to make friends

She has freedom, she says, to “get on with it and decide what my priorities are and how to pursue them”, and she’s “optimistic” about her chances of re-election in 2026, pointing to recent polling which put Alba at six per cent on the Lothians list, which is where she’s thinking of standing next time. And she is confident that her party’s numbers may be swelled by others following her across the aisles. “I speak to SNP colleagues on a weekly basis and the Alba Party in general is having conversations about that possibility. I’m talking about council upwards.”

But Regan is aware, too, of the criticisms levelled at Alba, many of which revolve around its rejection of self-identification for transgender people and around its leader, Salmond. He was cleared of all the charges against him in a high-profile sexual offences trial, but the case cast a substantial shadow. Latterly, the former RT broadcaster has faced further disapproval for his new role hosting a show on Turkish television channel TRT, which has been called a propaganda arm of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by opponents.

One of the most prominent members of Alba, solicitor Eva Comrie, has quit alongside former organisation convener Denise Findlay, who said “nasty smears” had “lost the party hard-working office bearers and many more activists and members”.

Speaking before that development, Regan said “people’s perception of what Alba might be is different” from hers. “Some people do perceive that Alba is a bit male-dominated,” she says, but she hopes they will see its “different approach” and that “we are really serious about making an impact” on independence, on the economy and on addressing child poverty. She thinks parliamentarians “should be fighting for a better financial settlement” and says “it’s very difficult to pursue growth without a capital budget to spend, and the capital budget’s been slashed”. “I feel we are in a trap now because of the fiscal framework where Scotland is hamstrung” on its spending choices, she argues.

“I’m handling it, I suppose, by really getting stuck into my work here as a parliamentarian,” she says of the criticism levelled her way. “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here for my constituents, I’m here to make an impact on the issues I feel are really important.

“I personally felt that, having stood in front of the electorate twice and said ‘vote for me for Scottish independence’, I couldn’t do it for a third time with nothing to show for it,” she goes on.

I’m comfortable with the decisions I have made

Regan is still on friendly terms with only a minority of her former party-mates, she says, recalling the response of one to her resignation from the government, while still an SNP member. “They were sitting in my office, and they were crying.

“I remember at that point having that conversation with that person and saying, ‘I’m comfortable with the decisions I have made’. I would do it again.

“They were saying they were worried about me. For some people, watching a colleague and a friend go head-to-head with the government was quite a shock.”

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