BT retreats over prostitutes' lines

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BRITISH TELECOM has been told to stop cutting off the telephone lines of prostitutes who use public telephone boxes to advertise their services.

Since July, British Telecom has been trying to stop prostitutes putting cards and stickers in phone boxes by blocking incoming calls on the numbers advertised.

Oftel, the telephone services watchdog, yesterday confirmed that it had told BT that it had contravened its obligation to 'provide universal service' without 'discrimination against particular customers'. BT has agreed to restore all affected services.

The climbdown is a victory for the English Collective of Prostitutes, which says kiosk advertising is an important source of revenue.

BT said the reprieve would be shortlived and it intended to introduce a clause into its customer contract which would give it the right to withdraw the service if users put cards in phone boxes. A BT spokesman said: 'There has been a considerable amount of complaint about the cards from people who find them offensive. There is also the problem of litter.' He added that only eight prostitutes had been cut off.

Susan Shannon, a 'maid', or prostitute's assistant, said BT was simply discriminating against prostitutes. In July BT suspended incoming calls on the telephone she operates on behalf of her partner. The two then asked BT to put in another line, which it did. Ms Shannon advertised the second as well as the first line. BT warned her this would be cut, too, but she was saved by the Oftel decision.

'A lot of girls have really suffered,' she said. 'It's very hard to advertise anywhere else. The police are very hard on advertising in shop windows; the magazines are very expensive. If BT stop us advertising in the boxes, girls will be forced back on to the streets.'

It is illegal for prostitutes to advertise. The English Collective of Prostitutes says that the prohibition is the only reason prostitutes have to publicise themselves in payphones.