One-third of police vice squads want brothels to be legalised, because officers believe they are fighting a losing battle against prostitution, a new study reveals today.
In addition, almost all the vice-squad officers questioned in England and Wales believe the current anti-prostitution laws are outdated, cumbersome and difficult to implement.
There is also widespread frustration at what officers believe is extremely weak legislation and soft penalties against kerb-crawlers.
The report shows that one in 10 officers thinks street prostitution should be legalised as well. The findings come in a study by the Centre of Criminology at Middlesex University. About 30 of the country's 40 vice squads took part in the research, which found widespread variation in the treatment of prostitutes, pimps and kerb-crawlers.
Many officers admit their work against street prostitutes is practically a waste of time and is carried out to appease complaining residents. However, the report found that the number of street prostitutes was decreasing.
According to the report, there are increasingly tolerant attitudes towards prostitutes who ply their trade in saunas, massage parlours, brothels and strip bars. Officers often stated that their main priorities were to "clean up the streets - not to police sex". And they considered that off-street prostitution posed few law and order problems. Half of the squads said they did not actively police off-street prostitution and only became involved when the public complained.
These areas included Bristol, Bradford, Cambridge, Coventry, Essex, Greater Manchester, Hampshire, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, North Staffordshire, Northampton, Stoke-on-Trent Plymouth and Wolverhampton.
Twenty squads reported a total of 1,231 women working as prostitutes in off-street locations. The number of women per squad ranged from three in Liverpool to 400 in Bristol.
The view expressed by a number of vice teams was that they could do little more than "keep the lid on it". One officer interviewed said: "It's the oldest profession in the book. You'll never get rid of it. Sometimes we feel like we're getting it under control a bit, but you can guarantee as soon as you turn your back, it's back again.
"It's a never-ending problem. That's why I think they ought to legalise it and give them somewhere they can work."
Almost all squads complained about the lack of powers they have to deal with brothels under the Sexual Offences Act 1956. Officers want additional powers of arrest, entry and closure, as well as changes to the law to move the burden of proof to the defence in immoral earnings cases.
The report, The National Vice Squad Survey, by Catherine Benson and Roger Matthews, found that the number of street prostitutes had dropped in most areas. On average, about 34 women worked each red light district. The number prosecuted had fallen from 9,196 cases in 1988 to 7,912 in 1993. Meanwhile, the number of kerb-crawlers prosecuted nationally had increased slightly, from 622 in 1988 to 857 in 1993.
The average number of street women arrested per squad was 334 a year, ranging from 2,315 in Westminster to none in Blackpool.
Half of the squads complained that they spent 50 per cent of their time doing paperwork after making arrests, and the vast majority said they spent, at most, a quarter of their time patrolling the streets.
The officers said fines and arrests did not deter prostitutes. When asked what changes they would like, the majority called for the power of arrest to be applied to kerb-crawlers, as well as female prostitutes. Some squads, however, felt that the time had come for experimentation with what they saw as more liberal legislation - such as legalisation - and alternative sanctions, such as community service.
One officer said: "The main problem is that there's no real deterrent. And the system just basically regurgitates them. They work because they've no money, they get arrested and fined, then to pay the fine they go back onto the street and round and round they go. It's just a blip in their earning capacity for that evening, or a form of taxation."
The research showed that some women were highly mobile and worked between different cities. The powers to punish kerb-crawlers were widely criticised. Average fines were about pounds 110, but in some areas, such as Leicester,they were as low as pounds 25.
Officers considered the fines system, which is at the discretion of magistrates, was something of a lottery. This was reinforced by the view that even when substantial evidence had been gathered, the "unsupportive" nature of the judicial system made their efforts essentially a waste of time.
Officers complained that it was particularly difficult to prove a kerb- crawler had "persistently" approached a prostitute and was a "nuisance", as is necessary under current laws.
The report concluded that vice squads saw the need for an urgent review of existing legislation. The authors said: "There is a likelihood that more forces will move towards the informal toleration of these off-street establishments. In the long term, such a strategy could result in more extensive commercialisation of the trade."
How vice squads would tackle brothels
Change in Law No of squads %
Power of arrest and entry 10 48
Legalisation 7 33
Power to arrest staff and clients 3 14
Burden of proof to be on
defence in immoral earning cases 3 14
Simplify, update legislation 2 10
Power to close brothels 2 10
Kerb crawling fines
fine (pounds )
Leicester 25 Leeds 50
Plymouth 50 Northampton 50-75
North Staffordshire 100