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Mary Dejevsky

Mary Dejevsky: Legalise brothels – but let's get prostitutes off the streets


Last week several dozen Romanians, quite a few of them elderly, camped out on the grassy central reservation of Park Lane, in one of the plushest parts of central London. They had been moved on from Marble Arch and objected that they had no money and nowhere to go. Although, as EU citizens, they were perfectly entitled to be in this country, the commentary – from media and public – was hostile, except for one Oxford researcher, who said they had been duped into coming to the UK by scheming fellow-countrymen, and it was the agents who needed to be tracked down and punished, not their victims.

While that is undoubtedly true, I was struck by a dissonance. Why was the reporting of the Romanians on Park Lane so unquestioningly hostile, when another downtrodden and excluded group, prostitutes – sorry, sex workers – in Tower Hamlets, Newham, and other parts of east London have been hailed as members of a heroic resistance in the face of what they claim are attempts to sanitise the streets around the London Olympic sites? Pressuring them to leave their familiar patches, their argument goes, will force them into more danger than they already risk, and give visitors a false impression to boot.

Missing from these reports is any hint that there might be another side. What about the awkwardness, for parents, of having their small children, perhaps, walk from school through streets where these hard-grafting women are just venturing out for their night's work? Or the complexities, for a female non-sex worker, of living in a street which the police seem to have abandoned to the kerb-crawlers? Nor does anyone seem to have asked the neighbours how they like living next door to flats where people are coming and going at all hours of the day and night, and used condoms are to be found in the stairwell?

Now one explanation for the largely sympathetic coverage of displaced prostitutes could be the predominantly negative attitude towards the Olympics of a certain class of Londoners. Another may be the residual guilt that lingers in the national psyche over the murders of five women in the Ipswich red-light district six years ago, when the unconscionable time it took to find the killer suggested that the forces of law and order considered the life of a prostitute cheaper than that of other women. But I suspect there are other forces in play, too, including the feminist conceit that prostitution is a life choice, and a sense of romance, tinged with a quest for freedom and risk, that attaches to prostitution in the minds of many who would not have anything to do with it in real life – a Mary Magdalene complex, if you like.

The sooner we legalise prostitution, permit registered brothels and regulate the sex industry, the better. Walking the streets is perilous for the women who do it, but it is also a nuisance for those who live or work in the vicinity, and a blight on neighbourhoods. A "clean-up" in east London should not be limited to the time and the place of the Olympics. It is long overdue and should be continued even after the international sports caravan has moved on.

Why can't GPs log on now?

The headlines looked so enticing. The Health Secretary promises that we will be able to book GP appointments online, avoiding those interminable telephonic waits and the Catch-22 of having to book for the same day, or a week hence, but nothing in between. So when does this revolutionary advance come on stream? Next week, or perhaps next month? All right, granted that this is the NHS and a behemoth that moves mighty slowly, how about next year?

The Government is holding out the prospect of online booking within three years, when it threatens to "name and shame" laggard practices. Yes, there will be patients without broadband or even an internet connection who might not be able to take advantage of the "new" facility. Indeed, but those booking online should make the phone queues shorter. Three years? Come off it, that's not a promise, that's posturing of the most meaningless kind.

Stay clueless, Mr Hollande

There is something endearing about a national leader who is obviously still learning the ropes. In protocol terms not all has gone smoothly for the novice French head of state, François Hollande. In Berlin, he almost collided with Chancellor Angela Merkel while reviewing the guard of honour – and in Washington, President Obama had to stop him from leaving the White House before he had paused for the cameras.

Mr Hollande's clumsiness is a cheering reminder that not everyone is born to be president and that observing summit protocol is more complicated than it is usually made to look. Of course, Mr Hollande will soon become as practised as his fellow leaders, which is a pity, because his apparent lack of social polish and innocence of worldly ways (apparent, because no self-respecting Frenchman is completely clueless about manners) may have been the secret weapon that won him the presidency over that hyper-charmer, Nicolas Sarkozy.