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Government open to amendments to proposed prostitution law: Peter MacKay

HALIFAX - The federal government is open to amending its proposed prostitution law, but Justice Minister Peter MacKay says the Commons committee reviewing the bill must move quickly to meet a tight deadline.

MacKay said Thursday he's looking forward to taking part in hearings that start Monday in Ottawa.

The Conservative government is open to constructive changes, he said, but he added that the bill is constitutionally sound and adequately responds to a Supreme Court decision that recently struck down parts of the existing laws.

"We're always open to amendments if they're constructive amendments that we believe it," he said after a funding announcement in Halifax. "This is what the committee process in all about."

MacKay said the committee is under pressure to act quickly because the court ruling in December stipulated that a new law must be in place within a year, which is why hearings are being held during the summer recess.

"Our message is: pass the bill," he said. "There is a sense of urgency."

The minister said the bill has already been subject to extensive consultations including online input.

Under the old laws, prostitution itself was actually legal but almost all related activities — including communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution, pimping and running a brothel — were criminal offences.

The Supreme Court was concerned that the provisions unduly increased the risk to sex workers and declared them in violation of the basic Charter right to security of the person.

The Conservative bill criminalizes the purchase of sexual services, targets those who benefit from prostitution and outlaws the sale of sex near places where children gather.

Some sex trade workers and their supporters have argued the bill will make it even more dangerous for prostitutes to work because it will force them to move to more isolated areas.

The Opposition New Democrats have said the proposed law is likely unconstitutional because it does not adequately protect women, failing to meet the court's primary concern.

NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin, a committee member, wants to wait to hear from witnesses before recommending what specifically needs to be amended.

But she predicted there will be no shortage of suggestions by the time the four days of hearings have been completed.

"There's going to be tons of suggestions for either amending, or making it more compliant to the decision," Boivin said in an interview.

"I think we need to reflect on it so we don't create something as non-Charter compliant as the previous sections in the Criminal Code were."

The government says the new offences are intended to reduce demand for sexual services, shield sex workers from exploitation and safeguard children and communities.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said his government is cracking down on johns and pimps because legalizing their activities would be unacceptable to Canadians, saying activities related to the sex trade are harmful to women and society in general.

"I'm not sure that the solution from the government is going to make the sex workers life more secure," said Boivin.

One of the provisions of the bill would be to ban all advertising on the sale of sexual services in print media or on the Internet.

Boivin said that could force prostitution "underground" creating more risk for already vulnerable women.

— With files from Mike Blanchfield in Ottawa

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