'Zero-tolerance' policy on sex trade criticised

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The Independent Online

Ministers have been criticised after dumping plans to create licensed "tolerance zones" to remove prostitution from residential areas. The Home Office was attacked for focusing instead on "zero tolerance" campaigns against kerb-crawlers when it releases its prostitution strategy next month.

Fiona Mactaggart, the Home Office minister, signalled that ministers would shelve plans to reform the laws to allow the creation of formal "red-light" zones, first floated by the then home secretary David Blunkett in a Green Paper last year. He proposed giving councils discretion to set up tolerance zones, small licensed brothels and a register of prostitutes.

Ms Mactaggart used an interview with The Guardian to reject the view that prostitutes were "sex workers" and called on police to make greater use of powers to confiscate driving licences from kerb-crawlers.

The Home Office said detailed proposals would be published next month. "We want to reduce all forms of sexual exploitation and the harm it causes," a spokeswoman said.

But ministers faced criticism from opposition parties and some councils, which argued that concentrating prostitution in managed zones could help bring women out of the sex trade and limit the impact of prostitution on residents.

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "Tackling the sex trade is important as it involves drug money and illegal trafficking. But a tough approach must be matched with realism. Prostitution is likely to remain Britain's oldest profession and the most effective approach to the problem will require managing it rather than attempting to completely end it."

Leaders of the Liberal Democrat-controlled Liverpool City Council defended their plans to introduce "managed zones" for prostitution, warning that simply attempting to stamp out the problem would cost millions and drive prostitutes to new areas.

The city is drawing up plans for Britain's first formal zones, designed to help the authorities target young women, help them give up drugs and offer alternative work to take them out of prostitution. The scheme is based on unofficial toleration zones in Edinburgh and Glasgow. In Bolton, where the town's zero tolerance policy is lifted in a small area at night, officials have helped some women to leave the sex trade.

A survey in Liverpool published last year showed more than 80 per cent of residents felt a managed zone was the best way to tackle street prostitution.

Flo Clucas, the city councillor leading the project, warned it would cost millions to police a full zero-tolerance approach to street prostitution and risked spreading the problem. She said the city planned to offer support, drugs treatment and education to prostitutes. "I think the idea of a mass crackdown is not going to work. It is not dealing with the root cause of the problem."

But Ann Lucas, the chairman of the Local Government Association's task group on prostitution, said she was delighted at the Government's change of heart. She said: "We don't tolerate murder or paedophilia. As a local authority we don't want to manage prostitution. I want to eradicate it."

Edward Garnier, the Tories' home affairs spokesman, said: "We welcome measures to cut down on prostitution but these plans don't look any different from those announced 18 months ago. What is needed to crack down on prostitution is not a reheated announcement but action to tackle the roots of the problem, namely that most people caught up in prostitution are affected by class-A drugs and the need to feed an addiction."

Selling sex on the Continent

GERMANY

Prostitution was in effect legalised by Germany in 2002 but some politicians are hoping to reverse that decision. Three million fans are expected to visit a sex worker during the World Cup in Germany next year, and up to 40,000 prostitutes will descend upon the main cities. Local authorities have been erecting "sex garages" and licensed brothels - Berlin recently opened Europe's largest brothel, housing up to 100 sex workers offering round-the-clock sex. The prostitutes pay a €70 entrance fee but keep all of the money they make. The World Cup plans have been criticised by women's groups, church leaders and trade unionists, some of whom are expected to protest at World Cup stadiums.

THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch sex industry was legalised in 1988. Local authorities are able to set up specific red light districts where brothels can operate and sex workers can solicit. The idea is that police can then target pimps and drug dealers rather than prostitutes. Sex workers must be over 18 and since 1996 have had to pay income tax. They are not required to take regular health check-ups. Of the 25,000 prostitutes working in the Netherlands, roughly two-thirds are from non-EU countries.

Jerome Taylor