So much for the theory. In practice, the country's telephone boxes are a battleground between pimps who want to stick advertising postcards in them, and police who want to pull those cards down. Magistrates' courts waste thousands of hours every month hearing prosecutions for soliciting. And there are unsavoury links between prostitutes, drug dealers, organised crime and the police.
This policy failure is prompting police officers and local councillors to ask whether there might be a half-way house between the status quo and a full legalisation of the sex industry. At yesterday's debate in Birmingham City Council's community affairs committee, for instance, there was talk of establishing an informal 'tolerance zone', in which prostitutes would be told that they could solicit freely without fear of police harassment.
The idea has its attractions. But while the law remains as it is, those who are unfortunate enough to live near the zone where prostitution is to be tolerated will have grounds for complaint. They will, rightly, be able to ask why a local council should be allowed to choose to leave some laws unenforced but not others; and there will be complaints that applying one law selectively is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.
That is why the full decriminalisation of prostitution makes sense, for all the obvious moral qualms about the idea of the state itself living off immoral earnings. In a system of licensed brothels, prostitutes would have the same rights as other employees, and would thus be safe from physical attack or exploitation. As an editorial in the British Medical Journal recently pointed out, the spread of Aids and other diseases would be greatly reduced.
But the most important advantage of an open and organised system, as the residents of some continental European cities have discovered, is that it reduces the need for prostitutes to solicit on the streets. Those who want to pay for sex know where to find it, while those who do not want to cast eyes on prostitutes know which streets to avoid. This is by no means a good solution to the problem - but it is less bad than any of the others.Reuse content