Brothels may be licensed under new prostitution laws

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Brothels could be licensed under a radical overhaul of Britain's prostitution laws unveiled by ministers yesterday.

Brothels could be licensed under a radical overhaul of Britain's prostitution laws unveiled by ministers yesterday.

Women working in small groups in off-street premises would have to register with the police, who would have wide powers to ensure that the brothel was legally operated, the Government suggested.

As the law stands, it is not illegal for a prostitute to work on her own from a flat or other building, but the paper raised the issue of whether two or three prostitutes should be allowed to work from the same address in an attempt to combat exploitation.

Home Office ministers said yesterday that licensing brothels was one way of controlling prostitution, which is being increasingly linked to violence, drugs, people trafficking and other antisocial behaviour.

Caroline Flint, the Home Office minister in charge of the review, said: "Let's be clear when we look at it; it's not Pretty Woman out there, there is no knight in shining armour going to take them out of their situation.''

The Home Office consultation paper set out a number of options drawing on the experiences of other countries. Licensing schemes are in operation in Holland, Greece and three states of Australia. The paper, Paying The Price, says: "Licence conditions commonly require mandatory health checks and the promotion of safe sex and condom use. They are also used for age and status verification to ensure there is no involvement of underage or trafficked individuals. Licensing is also used to address issues of location and of who is entitled to run a brothel, to enforce a clear break with pimps and organised exploitation.''

But the Government also sounds a cautionary note about decriminalising brothels. The paper says: "In general terms, careful consideration needs to be given to the message that licensing brothels might impart about the acceptability of an off-street, commercial sex trade, and the growth in the trade that is likely to follow that message of acceptability.''

The Government is also looking at a range of options for dealing with street prostitutes, including the introduction of "managed zones'' already being considered by some city councils. The paper says: "There has been considerable enthusiasm expressed to managed areas in Doncaster and Liverpool where local agencies have been struggling with the issue of street-based prostitution.''

Under the proposal, councils will be able to establish Dutch style "red-light areas'' where prostitutes are permitted to trade in a clearly defined area regularly monitored by the police and supported by drop-in health services and life and career counselling.

But the Government acknowledges it is not clear on whether to condone or condemn the act of buying and selling sex. In the consultation document, ministers specifically asked: "Is it ever acceptable for sex to be sold from private premises? And should our response to street-based prostitution involving adults accept or challenge its existence?''

The Association of Chief Police Officers warned yesterday that such schemes should be treated with caution.

Ministers and senior police officers were in agreement that there must be more use of exit strategies for prostitutes who want to escape the sex trade. The government promised to support such projects as well as tightening the law to crack down on pimps and people traffickers.

THE OLDEST PROFESSION

¿ In the middle ages, "Winchester geese" - as prostitutes were called - wore red and white hoods, by government decree

¿ Cardinal Wolsey kept prostitutes for the use of his guests at Hampton Court in the early 16th century. A Latin inscription over the doorway read: "The house of the whores of my Lord the Cardinal"

¿ In a sermon at Paul's Cross in 1572, a clergyman declared: "Stews [brothels] are so necessary in a commonwealth as a jaxe [lavatory] in a man's house"

¿ By the Victorian era, London's streets were rife with prostitutes; in St Paul's, Shadwell, in 1817, 1,000 prostitutes inhabited a parish of fewer than 10,000 people.