Police forces should compile a national database of people with a track record of violence against prostitutes according to one of the country’s most senior officers.
Deputy Chief Constable Simon Byrne, who also acts as the Association of Chief Police Officer’s lead on prostitution, called on the Government to consider overhauling Britain’s various prostitution laws which he admitted were “complicated”.
His remarks come just a week after the conviction of Stephen Griffiths, a 40-year-old PhD student from Bradford who murdered three street prostitutes prompting renewed anger from sex workers that not enough is being done to make their work safer.
Under current legislation selling sex is not illegal, but brothels and street prostitution are against the law. Critics say the prohibition on brothels forces women to work on the streets, often alone, where they are at far greater risk of violence.
In one of the clearest indications yet that police favour some form of legalisation of the sex trade, Mr Byrne called on the Government to find “better ways to manage” prostitution.
"Perhaps the law does need changing - some of it is frankly complicated," the senior officer, currently second in command at Greater Manchester Police, told BBC News.
"We'd be keen for a dialogue to see if there's a better way of managing the problem - be it ideas around criminalising some parts of it and not others. I think it's time for that debate.”
One proposal which Deputy Chief Constable Byrne said could be rolled out nationally at little extra cost is a countrywide database of people who are known to be violent towards sex workers.
"When times are tough and you have all the austerity and revolution going on in the public service... there's some hard [edged] maths to be done here,” he said. “If you can invest a small amount of money in rolling the scheme out, you can prevent an awful lot of crime."
Sex workers have long used word of mouth and internet forums to warn each other of violent clients and criminals who specialise in robbing them. In Liverpool, where six sex workers were murdered in the first five years of this decade, a so-called “ugly mug” scheme has been set up with support from the police to warn sex workers of known offenders.
The warning system has been combined with a drive by officers to protect prostitutes rather than prosecute them leading to a significant series of arrests against violent clients. In the five years before the new approach was rolled out across the city there was only one conviction for a series of assaults against sex workers. Last year alone there were 10 convictions for rape with several more trials due to start early next year.
But information on violent punters is rarely shared between forces leading to calls for a national database that would allow officers to warn sex workers when those with a track record of violence towards prostitutes move to their area.
A warning forum on the website PunterNet, which the previous government tried to close down, provides a snapshot of some of the day-to-day dangers faced by sex workers. Postings contain physical descriptions and partial mobile phone numbers for violent clients. In recent months there have been warnings for a man who is repeatedly robbing sex workers at knife point, an abusive client in the Norfolk area and a stalker in Bristol.
The Home Office is currently reviewing the way police approach prostitution and is expected to decide whether it will roll out a national database system next year.
Many sex worker groups, however, say only full or partial decriminalisation of the sex trade will dramatically improve safety. They say the anti-brothel legislation which prohibits more than one person selling sex in a single property forces women onto the streets and away from the comparative safety of a group.
“The law as it currently stands makes sex workers vulnerable to the police, criminals and vigilantes,” said Catherine Stephens from the International Union of Sex Workers. “We are criminalised if we work together. I know of brothels that are regularly targeted by gangs because they know they won’t go to police for fear of being arrested themselves.”
She added: “If we want to make sex workers safer we need an intelligent and informed debate on Britain’s prostitution laws based on evidence and not misinformed stereotypes. The law doesn’t just fail to target violence and exploitation, it actually facilitates it. Would we be safer working together? Yes. Is that legal? No.”