New laws for the oldest profession

Public acceptance of prostitution is growing, and now magistrates are pressing for Dutch-style reforms. But, Robert Verkaik asks, is Britain ready for licensed brothels?
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The Independent Online

"What do men think they are doing when they pay for sex?" demanded a middle-aged woman last week, during a debate on prostitution at the annual conference of magistrates.

"What do men think they are doing when they pay for sex?" demanded a middle-aged woman last week, during a debate on prostitution at the annual conference of magistrates.

Twenty years ago, such reactions typified society's view of the oldest profession in the world. But since then prostitution has enjoyed a kind of moral makeover. Hugh Grant's dalliance with a hooker in the back of a car in Los Angeles has hardly dented his career, while Jeffrey Archer's downfall could have been avoided if he had had the courage to own up to supplementing his married sex life with top-ups from prostitutes.

At the Guildhall in London last week the moral indignation expressed by the lady from the home counties was not supported by her colleagues. Instead the Magistrates' Association, a traditionally conservative body not known for its radical liberal thinking, voted overwhelmingly in favour of a review of prostitution laws, which it claims have become unworkable. It doesn't want just an overhaul of the old law but a move towards a properly regulated sex industry to follow the models of those in Holland and Germany.

In the current climate of liberalisation, culminating last month in the Government's decision to declassify cannabis, it is easy to dismiss the development as an aberrant nod to popularism. But last week's vote reflects years of frustration felt by justices of the peace who waste hours each week fining women who treat the court process as an occupational hazard.

What the magistracy has started, the Government may have to finish. The Home Office's own sexual offences review body has already acknowledged that some change is long overdue which could open the door to licensed brothels. Contrary to popular myth, it is not illegal to pay for sex in this country. What the law doesn't like is buyers and sellers of sexual services trading in public or anyone other than the prostitute profiting from the transaction.

The world has changed since prostitution laws were first introduced, but little has been done to modernise the way society treats the sex industry. Police forces still have to prosecute "madams" under the Disorderly Houses Act 1751, which makes it an offence to keep a "bawdy house". Proving an offence of soliciting still rests on the test of what is a "moral purpose".

The London-based magistrates who are proposing a change in the law are angry that, while they fine hundreds of prostitutes every week, very few pimps ever appear before them in their courts. The law defines pimping in terms of morality so that the police have the task of proving the man was "living off immoral earnings".

Roger Farrington and Christine Field, the two London magistrates who introduced the proposals last week, believe the laws which govern prostitution were introduced to punish immorality but are now used to curb the nuisances associated with prostitution. Attempts to drag the policies that affect prostitutes into the 21st century have only added to the confused state of the law.

Hilary Kinnell is the national co-ordinator for the European network for HIV and sexually transmitted disease prevention in prostitution. She says that even modern law, such as the 1985 kerb-crawling legislation, is not properly targeted because it deals with neither the neighbourhood nuisance nor the dangers that prostitutes face on the streets. Sex workers do not want to be protected from kerb-crawlers because these are their customers. Anti-kerb-crawling drives simply force the women to work in other districts where they are even more vulnerable.

Since 1956, when the Sexual Offences Act was introduced, the public's tolerance of prostitution has become much greater. A survey published last month showed that 48 per cent of the population thinks there is nothing wrong with paying for sex, while nearly one in 10 men admitted to having used a prostitute.

Mrs Field, a justice of the peace at Camberwell Green magistrates' court, says: "We now need a different focus to end the kerb crawling and target the pimps and try to go along with the model in Holland where they have clean houses for prostitutes.

"The present system is counter-productive as these women simply accumulate fines. We are dealing with women whose only income is what benefit they get from the state and many are feeding a drug habit." She says that sending them to prison when they can't pay their fines or serving persistent offenders with anti-social behavioural orders is unacceptable. But she also argues that residents of areas used by kerb-crawlers and prostitutes are fed up with "condoms in the gutters" and the effects of "red-light districts" on children.

The Dutch and German method of licensing brothels and taxing prostitutes aims to protect the women from violence and ill-health, while also protecting the public from the nuisance. It is a model many magistrates would like to see followed in this country. Last month, Germany took its first steps toward legalising prostitution when its lower house introduced a Bill allowing prostitutes to sue clients for non-payment. The social affairs minister Christine Bergmann said it was time to end the "hypocritical double morals" of German society that discriminate against prostitutes who pay tax like other workers. The changes would protect prostitutes from abuse by pimps and customers and improve access to training for other jobs, she added. Under the plan, which still needs approval in the upper house of parliament, prostitutes would be entitled to join state health and pension schemes and claim welfare benefits, whether they are self-employed or work in brothels.

This kind of reform is needed in Britain, says Ms Kinnell. "My concern is for the health and safety of sex workers. Whatever the deficiencies of the legalised systems that other countries have adopted, it is abundantly clear that the system in this country exposes sex workers to extreme danger, stigmatisation, exploitation, homelessness and social exclusion."

Birmingham and Sheffield have considered introducing zones of tolerance for prostitution in their cities. Birmingham has been at the forefront of moves to convince the Government to change the law to create zones of tolerance for prostitution in city centres. Earlier this year draft proposals were put forward by councillors in the city aimed at decriminalising soliciting except where it caused residents alarm, nuisance and distress.

Under the proposals drafted by the council's Policy Development Panel, the police would be legally entitled to turn a blind eye to prostitution unless there was strong evidence to show that it was against the public good. But the police and representatives of prostitutes themselves are against the plan. The idea has also been condemned by senior churchmen, who have described it as an affront to the women by treating them as rubbish that needed to be moved out of sight.

The Bishop of Aston, the Right Rev John Austin, said the plans took the view that the sex trade was an "unsightly sore" on the streets that needed to be cleaned up. "Prostitution is a reflection of the misery that addiction, poverty and desperation can bring. To treat the human beings involved as just so many bags of refuse does not solve the problem."