Green light for overhaul of prostitution laws

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The Independent Online

Britain's prostitution laws are to undergo their biggest overhaul for 50 years in a government review that could lead to tough jail terms for men who pay for sex.

Ministers are also looking to offer women an escape route out of street prostitution by creating toleration zones where prostitutes can be offered careers counselling and financial advice.

The proposals, to be unveiled by the Home Office later this summer, are expected to offer a "carrot and stick "approach to the regulation of the industry.

Under the current law, paying for sex is not illegal. Instead, prostitution is controlled by strict offences that prohibit associated acts such as kerb-crawling, soliciting, pimping and brothel-keeping.

One of the proposals is to follow the lead of Sweden where men can be imprisoned for up to six months if they are caught paying for sex.

But the focus of the Government's review will be on helping women to escape prostitution by creating managed zones in Britain's cities where they would be offered access to clinics for the treatment of sexual diseases and drug addiction.

Toleration zones, which have been unofficially tried in a number of British cities, including Manchester and Bolton, allow street sex workers to operate in strictly defined areas away from residential streets.

The Home Office review team has heard evidence in support of managed zones from senior police officers, magistrates, drugs advisers and groups representing sex workers in this country.

A similar review is being conducted in Scotland where tolerance zones have been unofficially explored in Edinburgh and Glasgow.Women working in those permissive zones may have to register with the local authorities and face compulsory medical tests.

At the same time, ministers are considering implementing tough laws to prosecute anyone involved in prostitution taking place outside those zones. Tough new measures on customers would only apply to those paying for sex outside the toleration zones.

Chief constables in England and Wales have long argued that prostitution is difficult to police because the law does not tackle the offence directly.

However, representatives of prostitution support groups are concerned the Government's review will give the police powers to intimidate and discriminate against sex workers who do not comply with the regime.

They also want ministers to set up toleration areas for indoor sex workers by introducing Dutch-style licensed brothels.

Hilary Kinnell, the national co-ordinator of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, says she supports "managed safety zones" but called on the Government to also abolish penalties for sex workers who want to work together in small groups indoors - currently caught by brothel-keeping legislation.

She said: "We also want respect for human rights including equality before the law, autonomy, liberty and security of the person."

Sex workers and support groups are opposed to mandatory registration and compulsory medical testing which goes on in some other countries such as Greece and Germany.

Sue Jago, the Home Office official co-ordinating the review, recently told a police conference that, in a modern society, turning a blind eye to prostitution was no longer not an option.

It is estimated there are about 80,000 women employed as sex workers in Britain, a number that has remained fairly static for the last five years. But in the same period the industry has become dominated by foreign sex workers.