By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sex workers in England and Wales should not face criminal charges for soliciting and brothels should be legalized, a British parliamentary group said on Friday, calling for local prostitution laws to be overhauled.

Countries have been divided over the best way to deal with prostitution with some including Canada, Sweden and Norway introducing laws to punish the client without criminalizing those who have been driven into prostitution.

Others like the Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand have legalized or decriminalized prostitution.

"Treating soliciting as a criminal offense is having an adverse effect, and it is wrong that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be penalized and stigmatized in this way," said the Home Affairs Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz.

There are an estimated 72,800 sex workers in Britain, of which more than 40 percent operate in London, and up to 2.3 million clients, equal to 11 percent of British men aged between 16 and 74, the parliamentary committee said.

It is legal to buy and sell sex in England and Wales, but related activities such as soliciting and kerb crawling whereby drivers cruise the streets for prostitutes, are illegal.

Northern Ireland, which has the right to legislate separately on the matter, criminalized the purchase of sex last year in a move advocacy groups said would help stamp out sex trafficking.

The Home Affairs Select Committee said it was not convinced by the effectiveness of the so-called "sex buyer law" in reducing demand and tackle crimes and exploitation associated with the sex industry - but would investigate the matter further.

The committee also urged the government to legalize brothels saying sex workers would be better protected as a result of working together rather than alone.

Vaz said the authorities should maintain a "zero tolerance" approach against forced prostitution and legal changes should not lessen their ability to prosecute criminal gangs involved in sexual exploitation.

The report also called for previous convictions to be erased from sex workers' criminal records to improve their chances of leaving prostitution without the stigma attached to it.

Pro-legalization campaigners welcomed the findings but urged further action.

"There should be an immediate moratorium on arrests, raids and prosecutions," said Laura Watson, a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)