Leading article: Such a timid liberalisation

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In the end, only a minor liberalisation of the laws governing prostitution was unveiled yesterday. The Home Office minister, Fiona Mactaggart, proposed that prostitutes should be permitted under the law to work in small groups, of two or three, from a flat. We would welcome this. Encouraging prostitutes to work in groups, and getting them off the streets, undoubtedly makes them safer.

But yesterday's proposals fell disappointingly short of what might have been. Establishing a nationwide series of "managed zones" - in which prostitution would be legal and where brothels would be licensed - was being seriously considered by the Home Office at one stage. This would have represented a significant step forward in dealing with prostitution. The Government was wrong to dismiss such a scheme out of hand.

Ms Mactaggart argued that the creation of managed zones would send out the "wrong message". But favouring such zones is not a question of condoning or encouraging prostitution. Few would argue that this is a "normal" profession. The lives of prostitutes are fraught with danger, whether from violent pimps or abusive clients. Awkward questions about consent are raised by the prevalence of drug dependencies among sex workers. It is also clear that many prostitutes are trafficked women from the old Soviet bloc. An increasing number of women are deceived into coming to Britain and forced to work in the sex trade. In light of all this, it is right that there remains a social stigma on men who visit prostitutes.

But managed zones are by far the best way to help those women involved in this dangerous trade improve their lives. Licensed brothels could help break the hold of pimps and make it easier for the authorities to identify trafficked women. Managed zones could also provide walk-in health and financial advice centres for prostitutes, who often have access to neither.

Yesterday's announcement was accompanied by tougher penalties for men who buy sex. Under the new plans, kerb-crawlers could lose their driving licences. But such a crackdown could actually end up making women less safe. Cari Mitchell of the English Collective of Prostitutes warned yesterday that it would make kerb-crawlers more jittery and give women - who are often desperate to make money - less time to check out the client before getting into the car. Such an outcome is in no one's interests.

The time has come for the regulation of prostitution in the UK. Experience has shown that the least effective way of protecting women is criminalising the trade and pretending that it can be eradicated by just one more authoritarian crackdown.