Sex and the sits vac: Ann Summers pleads for chance to take its business to the jobcentre

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The Independent Online

A judge was asked to rule yesterday that Ann Summers shops should be treated as a normal feature of the High Street experience rather than as part of the sex industry.

Ann Summers Ltd, whose premises selling exotic lingerie and sex toys are expanding rapidly into mainstream shopping areas, is contesting a ruling by Jobcentre Plus, a government agency, that it will not carry the company's employment vacancies.

Jobcentre Plus argues that it has introduced the ban because the adverts could cause embarrassment, and job seekersmight feel forced into accepting the jobs to avoid losing state benefits. Jobcentres do not accept advertising from any part of the sex industry.

Ann Summers' lawyer Kate Gallafent, opening the case in the High Court, said: "It is no part of the statutory role of Jobcentre Plus to make any sort of moral judgement on the claim-ant's business." She added: "There is no suggestion that Ann Summers is in any way embarrassed by what it sells. [It] is very proud of the range of products it stocks."

She said the potential for embarrassment was far greater in stores such as Liberty and Selfridges, which now sold sex toys and were not prevented from advertising in jobcentres.

The judge, Mr Justice Newman, was told that Ann Summers had 82 outlets, only one of which was classified as a sex shop and was as such excluded from the case. The company also has an internet and mail order business, and a party plan operation.

Ann Summers is recruiting staff at the rate of about 250 a year as it expands rapidly in Britain and overseas, but at the moment it can place advertisements only in newspapers and through recruitment agencies, which are more expensive than jobcentres.

The company had been able to advertise in many jobcentres, and about 50 per cent of its workforce had been recruited this way before the ban was introduced in May 2001. Despite pleas from the company, Jobcentre Plus issued a new policy statement in November last year, banning eight separate types of vacancy from its books, including "the Ann Summers category".

This category applies to businesses involved in the "manufacture, distribution, display demonstration, promotion or sale of sex-related products usually available to the general public only through licensed sex establishments and not commonly found elsewhere on the high street". Ms Gallafent said the category was "tailor-made" to ensure Ann Summers fell into it.

She argued that Jobcentre Plus could display Ann Summers adverts while not notifying job seekers of vacancies. In this way, only those who saw the advert and wanted the job would apply, and there would be no risk of embarrassment, or of a job seeker losing benefits for refusing to accept work.

There was laughter in court as the judge discussed the nation's sexual habits in the age of television programmes such as Sex And The City, which featured a Rampant Rabbit vibrator sold in Ann Summers shops. Mr Justice Newman said: "Common sense dictates that, no matter how advanced we are in Sex And The City, there will be job seekers who find it embarrassing and those who do not find it embarrassing." Many people would not like to be questioned about their sexual predilections.

The judge asked James Eadie, for Jobcentres, why an advert with a clear description of the job could not be used. "What about a vegetarian who answers an advert for a sales assistant in a high street shop and it turns out to be in a butcher's shop?" he asked.

Mr Eadie said that in such cases a conscientious objection would be upheld. But with the sex industry, a defined coherent policy was needed to maintain consistency of approach at all jobcentres. Judgment was reserved until after 3 June.

After the one-day hearing, Jacqueline Gold, the chain's chief executive, described the ban as "ridiculous".

'IT'S JUST LIKE GOING INTO ANY OTHER SHOP'

By Paul Peachey

"It's just a book for my friend's birthday,'' insisted the young woman looking nervously at the camera. "No, honestly, it's all been wrapped up,'' she added before scurrying off into the anonymity of the crowds.

Another satisfied customer for Ann Summers, "where passion meets fashion''.

It was business as usual yesterday at the Oxford Street store in central London, where tourists with their Union Flag carrier bags popped in to peruse the fur-lined handcuffs and bondage kits for beginners in the cheeky area downstairs and young women stocked up for hen nights.

The staff refused to say much about the jobcentre ban, save for offering a discount to the press. But the large poster spoke volumes about the current recruitment policy. A long, black leather boot stretched across the picture. "Coming soon,'' said the accompanying words. "Careers with a real kick.''

Most of those who looked around the store were scathing on the jobcentre stance. Tamer, 19, a drama student from London, called the restrictions on advertising ridiculous. "I would work anywhere where they would give me money,'' he said. "It's just like going into any other shop. I go in, buy products and go home."

Sharon, 23, a solicitor who had unsuccessfully searched for a pair of red knickers in her size for her wedding in July, said she did not believe anybody would have a problem working at the store. "I wouldn't, although my dad would," she said, reconsidering.

"I was quite surprised when they opened the store here. It has this image of being a bit sleazy, but it is much more low-key than I thought and approachable."

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