Sex and the citizen: lap-dancing - a licence to thrill?

The number of lap-dancing clubs has doubled in four years, thanks to a relaxation of licensing laws and despite local objections. But now an MP is fighting back. By Nigel Morris

Roberta Blackman-Woods is an unlikely rebel. No prude, the City of Durham MP finds herself the nation's unlikely crusader against the proliferation of lap-dancing clubs. Having seized the issue firmly by the gusset after the opening of a "gentlemen's club" next to an old people's home and school bus stop in her constituency, she will take her fight to the House of Commons today.

Backed by 50 Labour MPs, she will argue that ministers blundered disastrously by bringing in licensing laws that treat lap-dancing clubs in the same way as cafes and karaoke bars – no longer requiring separate approval by councils. She demands that the Government imposes tough new restrictions on the flesh emporiums springing up in such unlikely locales as Stourbridge and Leamington Spa.

Dr Blackman-Woods, a former university academic specialising in social policy and a stalwart of the Labour Party in the North-east of England, seems an improbable insurgent. In her three years in Parliament she has never voted against the Government and acts as an unpaid ministerial aide to Des Browne, the Defence Secretary. But she has become enraged by what she views as an elementary oversight to planning laws that has allowed lap-dancing clubs to flourish.

Thirteen years after the first such "gentlemen's club" opened, the numbers of clubs nationwide has increased to 300, double the total four years ago, when the most recent licensing regime became law.

The reality of the situation was brought home to Dr Blackman-Woods when the first application to run a lap-dancing club in Durham was approved by councillors. The decision to allow dancers to display their wares at the Loft nightclub – close to the retirement home and a bus station used daily by hundreds of schoolchildren – sparked uproar in the city. The ferocity of the reaction from residents, church groups and police, backed by their MP, led to the decision being overturned by magistrates.

But the club's owners are taking their case to the High Court, arguing that their application has to be approved under the 2003 Licensing Act.

That legislation, which ushered in the licensing liberalisation condemned for allowing round-the-clock drinking, had a little-noticed side-effect of putting the new breed of strip clubs outside London into the same licensing category as cafés.

Women's groups are arguing that they should be classed as "sex encounter establishments" alongside porn cinemas, peep shows and sex shops, making it much easier to refuse licences to applicants.

Dr Blackman-Woods is anxious to stress that she is not leading a moral crusade similar to that mounted by Clare Short against The Sun's page three girls 18 years ago. Her campaign is rooted instead in the argument that the planning laws have failed to take into account the people most affected by lap-dancing clubs – the residents who have to walk by them every day.

"Many people feel uncomfortable being in the vicinity of a lap-dancing club, even if they were never going to use it," she said. In Durham, "young women said they felt uncomfortable, they wouldn't want people to see them around the area. People want a say over what's happening in their area."

Dr Blackman-Woods said the Licensing Act only allowed people living or working within 100 metres of a proposed lap-dancing club to object to it. In the case of the Durham application, that excluded the residents of a large old people's home 300 metres away. "They were not able to have a say and yet they were half a street away. The Act itself is far too rigid and doesn't give enough people a voice over what is happening," she said.

A Commons motion demanding councils get the power to licence lap-dancing clubs as sex encounter establishments has struck a chord among many MPs, who have witnessed the rapid growth of such clubs over the past decade.

The industry has been forced to set up the Lap Dancing Association to argue its case. It maintains that the current licensing arrangements are adequate and is calling on ministers to focus on the "minority who flagrantly breach the industry best-practice standards and do not offer protections to their dancers".

There are signs that Whitehall could bow to the pressure. The Home Office is about to write to councils to ask their opinions on the situation and is leaving open the option of amending the licensing legislation.

But, Dr Blackman-Woods said: "My view is governments looking at something and governments actually doing something. There is an enormous chasm between those two things and if we're going to actually get legislative change we're going to have to keep pushing."

Among its supporters are 50 Labour backbenchers, of whom 18 are women. They include Ann Clwyd, the former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the former minister Glenda Jackson, 14 Liberal Democrats and Ms Short, who now sits as an Independent Labour MP.

Dr Blackman-Woods will launch a Commons Bill today calling for the loophole to be closed. She will tell MPs: "Of late, the Government has said it wants to be on the side of the people. I agree and here is an excellent example of how to put this sentiment into action. Local licensing policies, even where they mention lap-dancing clubs, seem ineffective. Let's give local councils some teeth to not have these where they don't want them."

As she delivers her speech, campaigners will set up a "strip- club café" in Parliament Square to highlight the inconsistency in the licensing legislation.

Dr Blackman-Woods said she was heartened and emboldened by the "massive support" from MPs of all parties, which she believed demonstrates the power of her case. "It wasn't anybody's intention that the Licensing Act 2003 would lead to this number of lap-dancing clubs being licensed. It's one of these unintended consequences of legislation you find from time to time," she said.

The MP also said she had received "100 per cent support from the public in her stand against lap-dancing clubs, with some claiming the venues were linked with prostitution and human trafficking. One woman wrote to tell her: "I know that the girls in lap-dancing bars hand out their telephone numbers to clients. My husband himself started a relationship with such a girl and has been living with her for some 18 months."

Lynda Waltho, the MP for Stourbridge, who is co-sponsoring the Bill, said: "It is time to hand back the democratic right of my constituents to have a say on what sort of clubs can set up in their town. It's nonsense that you can object to your neighbour building a porch but you can't object to a lap-dancing club setting up next door."

Dan Rogerson, the Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall, where five lap-dancing venues have opened, said: "The burgeoning number of sex clubs has caused considerable and understandable concern among residents in my constituency.

"Extraordinarily, it seems what were perfectly ordinary bars can slip into what is effectively a part of the sex industry without any further licensing requirements or consultation with local residents, as though our communities are glorified theme parks for adults."

'It's wrong that children see the raunchy adverts'

Lisa Perkins and Vicky Samuels were wheeling their pushchairs along Union Street in Plymouth yesterday when they turned to look at Teazers nightclub. The alluring silhouette of a naked girl on a moonlit beach stood larger than life among the shabby shopfronts. As well as boasting an exotic sounding website, the facade also offered special drinks deals every night of the week.

"They shouldn't advertise it as they do," said Ms Perkins, 19. "My nephew comes past here all the time and he'll say things like 'mummy, look at those boobies'."

The women have friends that had worked in the city's two pole- dancing clubs, both of which were licensed under the 2003 Act. They agreed that it was good money – at the height of the clubs' popularity, dancers were said to be taking home as much as £600 a shift – though working conditions could be challenging. "My mate used to work there and she said sometimes the men could get a bit full on. But the bouncers were there to deal with it," said Ms Samuels, 21, the mother of three-month-old twins.

The further you walk up Union Street, a well-known carousing ground among generations of sailors looking for rest and relaxation after months at sea, the more respectable it becomes, but it is clear that the fortunes of this part of town are firmly lashed to the night-time economy.

At the top end, by the city's Theatre Royal, sandwiched between the Plymouth City College's Learning Warehouse and a recruitment centre advertising £80-a-week jobs, can be found Temptations, the first lap-dancing club to open in Devon. The county has hosted six clubs in total, half of them in Plymouth.

Temptations began life by the Royal Dockyards in Devonport. It was opened only after a bitter row with city councillors, who turned it down twice because of concerns that it was near to a residential area and in a regeneration zone. The establishment eventually opened as a private members' club, but has since decamped to the top end of Union Street under the new Act.

"It is totally wrong," said Marie Prior, 55. "So many children come past here – there is the skating rink," she said. "If you are going to put it anywhere you shouldn't put them so close to families. Why not in the red light area? That seems appropriate, that is where men go. Lap-dancing clubs in England have been set up in residential areas where children come past them on the way to school."

Plymouth City Council insists that both clubs in the city are rigorously regulated and went through a strict licensing process in which they had to satisfy seven regulatory authorities, including child protection officers, the police and the fire service.

David Jamieson, a former MP for the area and ex-Labour transport minister, who led the fight against the original Temptations, said: "I oppose it for two reasons: the first is that in such a tight community the houses were on top of each other and some were a few yards away from the place.

"The second is because there was nowhere to park on the street. I thought it was right that it should be in clubland, where there is already a lot of noise, taxis and where it is already well regulated."

Jonathan Brown

Lap dancing in the UK

* The first British lap-dancing club, For Your Eyes Only, opened in 1995 in London

* There were about 150 clubs in the UK in 2004; this doubled to about 300 today

* A topless lap dance typically costs £10; fully nude £20

* Since the introduction of the 2003 Licensing Act, registering a lap-dancing club is as easy as registering a pub or karaoke bar

* Organisations such as The Fawcett Society call for the clubs to be licensed as Sex Encounter Establishments in the same way as sex shops

* Various reports show that women working in lap-dancing clubs face poor working conditions, such as paying to work and paying fines for being late or not sticking to dress codes

* Women living and working near lap-dancing clubs face increased levels of sexual harassment

* Cardiff City Council was forced to apologise last month over advertising space granted to the Fantasy Lounge club, which prominently displayed a woman in spotted knickers with knee-high boots

* The wives and girlfriends of the Chelsea footballers sank pink champagne and cocktails served by topless waitresses at the 911 Erotic Club in Moscow before the Champions League final last month

* Mike Tyson went to the Blue Velvet lap-dancing club in Newcastle after he gave an after-dinner speech last month in Gateshead

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