THE purchase of sex should be made illegal while prostitutes should face no criminal sanctions, Scottish Labour will argue in its manifesto.

The party will back a new approach to tackling commercial sexual exploitation, believing that the current situation sees only the victims of the trade punished.

Its manifesto, to be unveiled on Wednesday, will state: "Scottish Labour aims to tackle commercial sexual exploitation by challenging demand and by supporting those involved. It has a three-pronged framework: criminalising the buying of sex, decriminalising people involved in prostitution, and providing long-term support and exiting services for those exploited through prostitution."

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There have been a series of attempts at Holyrood to change the law in favour of penalising those who pay for sex, with advocates claiming it would decriminalise victims of sexual exploitation and help protect vulnerable prostitutes.

At present, it is not illegal to pay for sex in Scotland. However, activities such as public solicitation, running a brothel and kerb-crawling are criminal offences.

Rhoda Grant, who has spearheaded a campaign for the law change as a Labour MSP and is likely to return to Holyrood next month, said it had been recognised for many years in Scotland that sexual exploitation is violence against women, but that very little progress has been made in tackling the cause.

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She said: "We have an unequal society where it appears that we concede that men are entitled to sexual gratification even when that is at the expense of women. Worse than that our laws punish the women exploited in this way. In no other part of our society do we criminalise someone who has been a victim of violence."

Ms Grant added: "Scottish Labour believes that we need to build a fair and equal Scotland and that we cannot do this while allowing this exploitation to continue. We will decriminalise women in prostitution and provide them with the support and services they need to rebuild their lives and their health.

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"We will in turn ensure that it is unacceptable to exploit people in this way by making it a criminal offence to buy sex. This holds those who feed this industry to account for their actions, and will reduce demand for exploitative sexual activity. This will protect the most vulnerable in our society and will also reduce trafficking both within and to Scotland."

Some have opposed the move backed by Labour over fears that it will drive prostitution underground and mean men are less likely to wear condoms, which could be used as evidence against them in any prosecution.

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ScotPep, the sex workers’ rights charity, said during the last Holyrood session that it did not agree with the policy, fearing that it could put women in more danger and challenging the assertion that all sex workers are "victims".