Deborah Orr: Women always need protection from prostitution

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The Independent Online

One of the slightly more cheering, though rather academic, aspects of the otherwise breathtakingly sensationalist coverage of the Ipswich murders was the widespread expression of real distaste that the victims were described first as prostitutes and second as women. But such niceties appear to have fallen away now somewhat, judging at least from an extraordinary passage from the local council's newly published proposals for tackling prostitution in the town.

"Street prostitution in Ipswich has a unique profile," this strange document says, "involving individuals that are predominantly women." What can this mean? That female prostitutes are peculiar to Ipswich, while male prostitutes are the norm elsewhere? Or that there are, somewhat counterintuitively, many more prostitutes than there are punters in this town?

If it seems in bad taste to make light of a document that has been assembled in the aftermath of five horrible murders, then it isn't. Because the entire set of proposals is such a tragic mismatch of idealism and heartlessness that it is hard to take it seriously. Several well-meaning agencies have taken part in assembling this response to the events late last year, yet they have still managed to come up with an ambition that is chillingly similar to that of the killer himself.

The aim is to remove all street prostitution from the streets of Ipswich and indeed from the whole of Suffolk. The idea that "prostitution is the oldest profession and has to be accommodated" is to be vigorously challenged. This is not to be done in a deliberately punitive way. Efforts are to be made to help women working as prostitutes by offering them support over such pertinent issues as "substance misuse, domestic violence, housing issues, debt management, child-care issues, physical health, mental health, education, employment and criminal justice interventions".

Let's leave aside the fact that such services are theoretically available to everyone in the country already, and also that the document makes no mention of where funding for any stepped-up effort will come from. Let's concentrate instead on the fact that if we ought to have learned one thing from Ipswich, surely it was that street prostitution operates beyond reason. Women still went out on the streets when they knew for sure that a murderer was at large, and died for their insanity. More horribly, they went out knowing that their customers, one of whom was a killer, would still be there.

What further disincentives does the council imagine it can come up with? Asbos are mentioned. Closed circuit television is mentioned. Number-plate recognition is mentioned. The banning of drivers caught kerb-crawling is mentioned, as is, more positively, concerted action to "re-educate" men who use prostitutes. Even, most worryingly, the use of planning enforcement orders against owners of premises used for prostitution is mentioned. The last is likely to drive prostitution on to the very streets it is not to be tolerated in, while most of the others are likely to move trade to other towns, or to yet darker places in the environs of Ipswich.

I support all the emphasis in these proposals that stresses that prostitution is a consequence of vulnerability and that every effort should be made to stop women falling into prostitution and to help them out of it. But I cannot accept that if people are too abject or too ill to take advantage of the help they may be offered, then there can be no protection for them as women and as human beings because they are prostitutes. When the council has proved its point and eradicated street prostitution, then it can proudly proclaim that it has no need to consider strategies for making women safe.

* It hasn't been an entirely brilliant week for Madonna. It's not that her clothing range for H&M has been such a flop. It's more that the news has got out that a former nanny is touting a memoir and threatens, according to Grazia, to detail the behaviour of Madonna's children. It would nice to imagine that no publisher is likely to countenance such an assault on the privacy of minors. But at least if it gets to the courthouse, Madonna will win. Awful that she even has to face the threat.

Why punish kids for our failure?

They're having a laugh. What do you do when you're running an education system in which half the boys are falling behind on basic skills before they leave primary school, and half the girls are too? What do you do when you're running an education system in which teachers complain that disruption in class is one of their greatest hindrances?

What do you do when you're running an education system that has such poor services for excluded pupils that, for many, a trip to the referral unit means no way back into school?

Why, you raise the leaving age to 18, and tell the nation's children they'll be fined if they don't stay on. I agree that children should stay in education as long as they can. But this approach entirely contradicts the Government's own wise mantra that early intervention is best for children. Most parents - including Ruth Kelly, below - could tell you what one big problem really is. The vast majority of primary schools have little or no provision for coping with learning difficulties.

Amid all the head-scratching about underachievement among boys, no one ever seems to ask if there might be a correlation with the higher prevalence of autistic spectrum conditions among males. Wouldn't this be the point at which to start increasing access to education, instead of waiting till children are 16 then fining them because they never got the help they needed at the start?

* She perched her specs on her nose to peer at the running order, sipped clean, serene and decorous water from a little white mug, and chatted to the audience about this and that as if they were all old chums who'd dropped round en masse, by amazing coincidence, because they were passing the front door anyway.

Marianne Faithfull's return this week to the London stage, following the postponement of her world tour in favour of breast cancer treatment, was a pretty intimate affair, an acoustic gig in a small venue before an audience who'd mostly bought dinner as part of the ticket price. Her son Nicholas was in attendance, as was his father, the artist John Dunbar. Anita Pallenberg turned up for girly support, and Polly Harvey, one of a number of high-powered song-writing collaborators on Faithfull's powerful last album, Before the Poison, had a good old weep at the sweetness of it all.

Faithfull has just turned 60, lives with her lover in Paris in an elegant flat not far from the Hotel Crillon, and lapped up praise from the critics last month for her performance as a middle-aged sex worker in her latest film, Irina Palm. All of which make it something of an oddity that one of her best-loved songs is "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan", which bemoans the fact that a woman's chances of glamour and excitement in life - and in the French capital - are absolutely zilch by the time she's hit the grand old age of 37. Still, she sang it as an encore anyway, by popular demand.

Being 60, like surviving breast cancer, Mick Jagger, living on a wall in Soho, cleaning up after addiction, being brought up in a weird hippie commune, and so on and so forth, has been commandeered by Faithfull as one of the armoury of Surprising Things That She Has Achieved. Her Blondeness knows perfectly well that it's a miracle she's still here at all, let alone still oozing beauty and sexiness, and still refining and developing her 44-year-long career as a musician.

One is tempted here to suggest that the woman is some kind of countercultural role model. But the truth behind the legend is probably more along the lines of: Don't try this at home, unless you're Marianne Faithfull.