Leading article: There are better ways to protect trafficked women

The Government's proposals threaten to do more harm than good

The Government's latest proposals on prostitution are doubtless well-intentioned. Who could argue with a desire to increase protection for women who have been trafficked into prostitution against their will, or with the urge to shift legal culpability away from vulnerable and often brutalised sex workers and on to their customers? But there is a serious danger that what the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, proposed yesterday – creating a new offence of paying for sex with prostitutes who are "controlled for another person's gain", increasing penalties for kerb-crawling and new police powers to close down brothels – will not achieve those noble ends. Indeed, they could end up putting exploited women at greater risk than before.

The crucial point to bear in mind is that if it was possible to eradicate the sex trade through legislation and ratcheting up social stigma, it would have disappeared long ago. Prostitution has thrived in more censorious and judgemental eras than our own. It is an uncomfortable lesson, but history teaches us that as long as there is a demand for commercial sex, supply will spring up to service it. And demand is showing no signs of declining. That is the context, unpalatable as it is, in which we need to evaluate the new plans.

Increasing the force of law is not going to stop men from visiting prostitutes, but it will make them more wary of being caught. There will be an incentive for prostitutes to reduce the chances of their clients being arrested. That means they will be tempted to ply their trade in more secluded areas, to travel further from their homes and colleagues. The effect will be to help push the trade further "underground", out of the sight of the authorities. How would this help trafficked women, or any prostitutes for that matter? And how would increasing the powers of police to close down brothels help get women off the streets, which is the most dangerous environment for sex workers?

The Government would be better advised to shelve these well-meaning but misguided plans and instead consider a more effective method of protecting women involved in the sex trade: the establishment of "tolerance" zones and brothel licensing schemes. This offers no panacea. But such schemes would enable officials to monitor the trade, making it harder for traffickers to operate. It would also give sex workers greater "safety in numbers" and access to sexual health advice. The obvious objection is that few people will want their neighbourhood turned into a red-light zone. This is no idle concern and the Government does not have an encouraging track record in this area. The foolish decision of ministers to allow lap-dancing clubs to be licensed in the same category as cafés and pubs has resulted in a proliferation of these seedy establishments, often in wholly unsuitable areas.

But prostitution is different from lap dancing. Brothels do not tend to profit by attracting passing punters from the street. And discreet "massage parlours" can already be found in even the most outwardly genteel of neighbourhoods, above shops and homes. Tolerance zones would actually help to cluster them in more appropriate areas. The majority of residents would probably be pleased with the results of a licensing scheme.

The Government should certainly be doing more to raise general public awareness of the plight of trafficked prostitutes. But if ministers want to help such women directly, they need to examine ways to achieve the thing likely to do their captors and brutalisers the most harm: drag the sex trade out of the shadows and into the light.