'Tolerance zones' may offer an escape from the streets

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In Lynne Smith's right hand, she clutches tightly a Tesco plastic bag in which she keeps her condoms and lube (lubrication). These are the only tools of her trade.

In Lynne Smith's right hand, she clutches tightly a Tesco plastic bag in which she keeps her condoms and lube (lubrication). These are the only tools of her trade.

Apart from a spell as a chef, Ms Smith, 33, has spent her working life walking the streets between Liverpool University and the Royal Hospital. Every day brings the same dangers, pimps, abusive punters, drug dealers, angry residents and the arbitrary attentions of police.

Last year, two prostitutes were murdered on the same beat walked by Lynne Smith. But death is just another occupational hazard for the 100 or so Liverpool streetwalkers like Ms Smith who know they can earn up to £200 a night.

Her dangerous trade is now the focus of a Home Office review which could lead to jail terms for men who pay for sex. It could also offer women a way out of street prostitution by creating toleration zones where they can be offered careers counselling and financial advice.

For Ms Smith, any measures which could provide a route out of her present life would be welcome. She experimented with prostitution after her mother died when she was just 15. "My dad and me were left with my five younger brothers and sisters. An older friend of mine suggested I tried it. We needed the money badly so I went with her."

She says she will never forget the first time. "Everyone remembers their first time, I hated mine. It was a Chinese fella. He wanted two girls, so my friend brought me along as well. I remember he had a white Metro and I was sick for five days afterwards. But I had to have the money and when my friend asked me again I went with her."

At 24, Ms Smith tried to escape her life. She began a YTS course for trainee chefs, which led to a job in the city's most famous hotel, the Adelphi. But after seven months she was back on the streets. "I couldn't stick it because I had to get home quick for the kids," she said. "Prostitution is fewer hours and more money."

When she first started on the streets in the 1980s, Liverpool's prostitutes were concentrated around the docks, the cathedral and Toxteth. But dockland redevelopment and a creeping gentrification of the city has forced them to find new beats.

Pete Clark, senior lecturer in public health at Liverpool John Moores University, has interviewed many of the prostitutes for a council project aimed at setting up a managed zone to help the street women. He said: "The girls used to work in areas that were run-down, with a lot of derelict housing, but now these parts of the city have been redeveloped, with Edwardian houses fetching as much as £1m each. The new residents, many of them professional people, complained to police about the nuisances associated with prostitution and the girls have been moved on."

The women now walk a new stretch, from Liverpool University to the heights near Netherfield Road. That even takes in the parkland outside the city's police headquarters.

But many of the women say they feel more vulnerable than ever. Joanne Blair (her street name), 21, says she has been selling her body for sex since she was just 11.

In her handbag she carries a large knife. "I tell every punter the same; I'll slash them if they get rough."

Joanne says she uses the money for clothes and food. "I'm not on drugs. You can see, look, I haven't got any marks." In the hierarchy of the street prostitute, the drug addicts are at the bottom of the heap.

Yet Joanne takes no other pride in her work. "I hate it every time. I do it but I keep thinking this will be the last time." Recently she found work in Burger King, and a Liverpool strip club. "I'm waiting to hear whether I've got this other job now working as a telesales girl."

The majority of Liverpool's street prostitutes are addicted to drugs or alcohol and work simply to feed their habits. Mr Clark says a managed zone would give the women access to support services, such as drug and sexual health clinics as well as career and financial counselling. "There is no doubt that a lot of the girls on the street would greatly benefit from these services," he says.

Lynne Smith agrees and says the time has come for the council and the Government to act to help prostitutes. "We want a safe zone where we can carry out our business free from all the dangers."

Unofficially Liverpool police are not saying which part of the city they would promote as a suitable managed zone but Ms Smith says the prostitutes have been told that the light industrial buildings of Kempston Street have been earmarked for a new toleration district.

The Home Office review is expected to give a green light to several cities, including Liverpool, where councillors want to set up similar prostitution managed zones. The police also want a commitment from government ministers to show they are prepared to legislate to make management of these zones workable.

There are an estimated 80,000 women prostitutes in England and Wales, mostly in massage parlours or brothels. Although only a few thousand women are in street prostitution, being more visible they attract other crime. Most of the women are on drugs or alcohol. Tonight, Ms Smith and Ms Blair will be back at work as usual.

RED LIGHT FACTS

Eighty thousand women were involved in prostitution in 2002, the Home Office says. Half of them were under 25

Ten thousand female asylum-seekers, including children, were trafficked into the UK in 2000

£770m is spent on prostitution in the UK every year, and £400m is spent on going to the cinema, the Royal Economic Society says

Legal prostitution could raise £250m a year in extra tax revenue, researchers believe

Four thousand children and young people were cautioned or convicted for prostitution offences between 1989 and 1995