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Turning a blind eye to a flourishing trade in saunas

Brothels and legalisation: Where girls are kept off the streets
The city of Edinburgh's "see nothing, do nothing" approach to prostitution in saunas and massage parlours could become the model for other towns.

As two more senior chief constables urged a review of the laws on prostitution in the wake of the call by Keith Hellawell, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, for licensed brothels, forces will come under pressure to take a more relaxed attitude to saunas selling sex.

Whatever the moral majority thinks, supporters of the Edinburgh policy - which include councillors and women's groups - can point to its success in keeping prostitutes off the streets and away from the associated crime and drugs.

A senior council official in Edinburgh said yesterday: "We do not legalise prostitution, but we do grant public entertainment licences in terms of the Civil Government (Scotland) Act. That Act authorises for places of entertainment. It is left for each local authority to interpret the definition of entertainment."

Licence applications for saunas are considered by the council's committee along with applications for amusement arcades, children's bouncy castles and bungee jumps.

The official went on: "The number of saunas in Edinburgh remains static, at around 20, and there are regular checks on environmental health and safety grounds. Most are granted licence renewals without difficulty, and officially the council is in ignorance of what goes on inside.

"The anxieties that the police have raised from time to time have been in relation to the applicant, rather than the application. If you have an establishment you are taking women off the streets. Given the choice of plying their trade on the streets, or in a regulated establishment, the establishment is always safer. But prostitution is not legal so we can't condone it in any way."

The only public opposition to the policy comes when residents object to saunas being set up in established residential areas.

The council's licensing convener, Douglas Kerr admitted that the process of licensing has not always been smooth. "We had real problems when we were taken to court after we granted a public entertainment licence to a sauna in Leith" he explained. "We were successfully challenged that we had granted a public entertainment licence knowing the premises were to be used for prostitution. Since then we have had to be much more careful about what we regulate. But large numbers of women on the streets would be to nobody's advantage."

Police only take action in response to complaints. In a typical case earlier this month, a proprietor was fined pounds 500 for running a sauna and massage establishment, Scorpio Leisure, where six women aged from 20 to 49 were providing sexual services. Police obtained a search warrant after complaints about cars being parked outside the premises and men hanging about in the area.

The policy has attracted widespread interest among other forces, including West Yorkshire, West Midlands and Avon and Somerset.

Margaret McGregor, deputy convener of the City of Edinburgh Council and chairman of the city's women's committee, said it was safer for women to work from properly licensed saunas. "It's easier to give advice to them on things like health checks, contraception and other issues, including safety. We have had a lot of positive feedback from women and women's groups. I feel that most women generally would support our sauna policy. It takes prostitutes off the streets.

"You read in the papers about prostitutes being killed in other cities, including Glasgow. This does not happen in Edinburgh with our policy in operation. The other thing is that they pay income tax because they are in proper employment and are therefore contributing financially to society."

Lothian and Borders police would not be drawn on the moral issues involved but a spokesman said: "Saunas are granted licences by the council. If we receive any specific complaint regarding any premises which are licensed under the Civic Government (Scotland) Act by the local authority, then we will investigate that matter, but there has to be a specific complaint connected to the licensing aspect of the premises."

June Taylor, a former Edinburgh prostitute who also worked the streets of London in the early Seventies and is co-ordinator of Shiva, Scottish HIV Action, a support group for prostitutes said yesterday: "I welcome the chief constable's statement. A leading policeman in Britain has at long last said that the current legislation in Britain is not working.

"I think he is right to point that aspects of the model currently being used in Edinburgh could be adopted and changed to suit other cities in Britain.

"However, what society currently needs is politicians to address this issue and to give a guidance to local authorities in England and Wales so that they could create a regulated set-up with prostitutes ...

"Decriminalising the prostitutes and focusing valuable police recourses on those who would exploit and pimp our young people is the only way forward. We should be tackling the people who would procure our women."