Legislation outlawing prostitution should be scrapped, the Royal College of Nursing decided yesterday.
Delegates at the annual congress in Harrogate voted overwhelmingly to "decriminalise" the sex industry so that more prostitutes would feel able to come forward for health care.
College members said they wanted to see women off the streets and able to carry condoms without fear of harassment by the police.
However, the RCN fought shy of proposing the positive legalisation of "the oldest profession", with the controls and licensing system that implied. Proposers of the resolution - supported by nearly 80 per cent of delegates - felt that new laws regulating prostitution may have been a reform too far for some of the more conservative delegates. Following the debate, nurses said they had no intention of making prostitution seem a worthy profession, but they wanted to remove the "shame, stigma and victimisation" and minimise the danger to young women, men and children who are driven to sell sex for money.
The RCN council will now draw up detailed proposals on how the policy might work and present it to the Home Office. College officials are keen that there should remain tough laws to deal with men who coerce people into prostitution. They believe that public order and planning laws could be used to protect call girls. The resolution proposes the repeal of the Street Offences Act, which covers soliciting, and the Sexual Offences Act, which criminalises the operation of brothels and "living off immoral earnings".
Proposing the motion, Julia Fearon, of the Society of Paediatric Nursing, said decriminalisation would not tackle poverty, one of the main causes of the trade.
But prostitutes feared discrimination and prosecution if they were to come forward for treatment. Those who are parents fear having their children taken away, she told the conference.
Ms Fearon said her primary concern was about the welfare of young people. She pointed out that a Children's Society survey had found that one in seven runaways, both boys and girls, had been driven to sell sex for money. Between 1989 and 1994 there was a 35 per cent increase in the number of 10 to 16-year-old girls cautioned for soliciting.
The English Collective of Prostitutes estimates that 70 per cent of call girls were lone parents, of whom the majority were devoted mothers protective of their offspring.
Ms Fearon said the present laws were "discriminatory, sexist and bizarre" which protected no one and did not control prostitution. She said police turned a blind eye to the activities of sauna and massage parlours in Edinburgh and Bristol and that the policy had worked.
However, Robbi Robson, assistant director of nursing policy for the RCN, said that such a policy amounted to the "worst of both worlds". Prostitutes were allowed to carry on their work, but had no protection from exploitation.
Gail Trotter, an outreach worker in Edinburgh, said call girls were currently caught in a "cycle of entrapment". They were arrested by the police, fined by the courts and then forced back on to the streets to pay the fine.
Sarah Scrase, whose hospital in Southampton covers a red light district, said girls averaged nine minutes per client for which they charged between pounds 5 and pounds 25. She said it would be far less dangerous if they could ply their trade indoors.
Arguing against the motion, Liz Rees, of Gwynedd, said the issue was the concern of the English Collective of Prostitutes rather than the RCN, which could be in danger of encouraging people into prostitution. "Yes to good health but no to decriminalisation," she said.