Jerome Taylor: Politicians have failed to honour their promises to protect sex workers

There is evidence that assaults rise when sex work is further criminalised
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The Independent Online

When Jacqui Smith unveiled new legislation in 2008 overhauling the way Britain polices sex work, she was adamant that the safety of prostitutes was foremost in her mind.

"I want to do everything we can to protect the thousands of vulnerable women coerced, exploited or trafficked into prostitution in our country and to bring those who take advantage of them to justice," she said.

But things might not be working quite as well as the former home secretary hoped. A year after the Policing and Crime Act was passed in the Lords, three sex workers in Bradford have been murdered, prompting concerns that the new legislation may be forcing women out of the comparative safety of brothels and on to the streets.

The final draft of the Act was a watered-down version of what Ms Smith and her allies had planned. They had hoped for strict kerb-crawling bans based on similar legislation in Sweden and the Netherlands, while Harriet Harman wanted an outright ban on any payment for sex.

Instead, the emphasis was on criminalising people who had sex with trafficked women – and increasing police powers to arrest sex workers and close down brothels. For those who wanted a clampdown on prostitution, it was a welcome piece of legislation. But sex workers themselves will tell you a very different story.

Brothels (defined under legislation dating back to the 1950s as anywhere where two or more people sell sex) may not be the most salubrious places in the world to work. But compared with the street, a well-run massage parlour provides a much greater level of safety and security for the women (or men) who work there.

Yet sex workers say raids against brothels are increasing, forcing women on to the streets. Police, meanwhile, have a financial incentive to raid brothels as they can now keep much of the money they find there. The new laws also leave prostitutes less likely to report any violence meted out to them.

Little information has been publicly released on the number of attacks against prostitutes, but there is evidence to suggest that assaults increase when sex work is further criminalised.

In 2007, Scotland made kerb crawling a criminal offence with potential fines of up to £1,000. Scared of being caught driving through streets, punters began insisting that sex workers meet them in even more isolated places. Figures released by Scot-Pep, a charity which works with prostitutes, recorded that attacks against sex workers doubled the following year.

The flip-side to increased legislation is complete decriminalisation – something which few politicians believe is a vote-winner, even though most sex workers say it would dramatically improve their safety. Legalisation is also stymied by a "not in my back yard" reaction from the public, who may favour decriminalising prostitutes but who don't want to see scores of sex workers on their streets.

If New Zealand is anything to go by, they needn't worry. They legalised prostitution in 2003 but the number of prostitutes working in the main cities stayed the same.