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BRADFORD: PM PAINTED INTO CORNER ON SEX WORKERS’ RIGHTS

by on May 29, 2010

Bradford victims Susan Rushworth, 43, Suzanne Blamires, 36, and Shelley Armitage, 31

AS SELF-STYLED “crossbow cannibal” Stephen Griffiths spent his first nights on remand this week for the alleged murders of three Bradford survival sex workers, hopes that the new Westminster coalition might abandon the failed policies of New Labour over prostitution were on the wane.

Instead, ‘more of the same’ seemed to be the recipe of Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking to the BBC following the slayings of Suzanne Blamires, Susan Rushworth and Shelley Armitage. Said Cameron:

I think we have to deal with the causes of this problem. The causes are drug abuse – a massive problem – we’ve got to get to grips with drug abuse. I think we’ve also got to do more to get people who are involved in prostitution to have a job to help rebuild their lives. Also, I think we’ve got to be much tougher on kerb crawling. It is illegal, that aspect of it we really should clamp down on.

Kerb crawling laws, imported to England and Wales from the USA (where they also don’t work) in 1985 and recently extended to Northern Ireland and adopted by Scotland, have yet to be adopted by any countries in mainland Europe. They are widely blamed for displacing survival street workers into areas with which they are unfamiliar, with violent inhabitants with which they are also unfamiliar (as in the Amanda Walker case), and with forcing them to agree transactions at speed, reducing their capacity to assess clients or negotiate safe sex, to avoid the police.

Few would disagree with Cameron’s assertion that more and better drug rehabilitation would be a fine thing, though how this would be accomplished with the sex workers scattered to the four winds by kerb crawling clampdowns is unclear, as is the finance.

More intriguing was his answer when questioned about decriminalisation. He said that it had “been looked at in the past.”

“I dare say it should be looked at again. I don’t think we should jump to conclusions on this – there are all sorts of problems that decriminalisation would bring.”

What these “all sorts of problems” were, exactly, he didn’t say. Instead, reports the Telegraph, a batch of number ten backwoodsmen rushed to paint the PM into a corner:

Aides close to Mr Cameron last night strongly insisted he was not suggesting prostitution should be legalised and was more concerned with addressing the social problems surrounding it such as encouraging agencies to work together to help women off the streets or to combat drug addiction.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We take any crimes against vulnerable people seriously. This Government is committed to protecting those involved in prostitution and giving them access to routes out. The ongoing success of the Ipswich model demonstrates the benefits of multi-agency working towards a clear aim of eradicating prostitution by supporting those involved in prostitution while tackling those that contribute to the demand for prostitution.

Cameron had said it was important to “make sure all agencies work together,” but as many of the people working for them have long since concluded that the present hotchpotch of laws on prostitution are both ineffective and dangerous, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a radical shake up is required.

Take, for example, the words of Peter Corkindale, then head of Bradford’s vice unit way, way back in the time of John Major in 1995, calling for licensed, regulated brothels:

If there was legislation that put down ground rules then that would make our job easier. If there was a brothel using under-age girls, we could threaten the licence holder with closure and prison.

When bookmakers were legalised there was a huge outcry, but that has been taken from back alleys and pubs to organised betting shops and the problems have gone.

If women were allowed to work for themselves from licensed brothels, paying the owners a rental fee but keeping the rest for themselves, the threat from pimps would be removed and the kerb crawling that goes on in residential areas would become unnecessary.

Corkindale argued that regulation would make life safer for prostitutes – removing the need for pimps as protectors – and for clients, who are often set up and robbed by prostitutes and their pimps but who seldom complain to the police (here’s an example from the last few months).

Today, one would make little adjustment to Corkindale’s words. New Zealand, which leads the world on the issue, would not license the premises – as it is not the premises that cause the problems – but rather the people who work with sex workers. The premises, on the other hand, do require planning permission. And there will always be a street sex market, because of price, and because of convenience.

But what has happened in the UK in the intervening 15 years since the head of Bradford‘s vice unit spoke those words, 13 of them under New Labour?

  •  When Corkindale spoke, the maximum penalty for owning or managing a brothel was six months. In the Sexual Offences Act 2003 this was increased to 14 years.

  • Further penalties under the Proceeds of Crime Act now result in the seizure of all assets of brothel owners/managers deemed to result from their involvement. Proceeds are shared between the Inland Revenue, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, resulting in gratuitous prosecutions.

  • Premises used as brothels can now be closed for up to three months under the new Policing and Crime Act.

  • ‘Kerb crawling’ has been made an arrestable offence and the requirement that it is ‘persistent’ has been dropped.

  • The ill-researched moral panic over sex trafficking has led to two national Pentameter inquisitions, with widespread arrests, mostly of women for peacefully managing brothels or for immigration offences, and very few of them for trafficking.

  • Whilst very few sex trafficking victims have been identified, the rescue industry has burgeoned and millions of pounds given to the London’s Poppy Project.

  • A new offence has been created of moving working girls about between brothels under the heading of Trafficking, but in ten years, the UK has failed to enshrine the Palermo Protocol international definition of trafficking into law.

  • Innumerable sex workers have been killed, most of them survival street workers, most of them one-offs rather than by serial killers and very few of them, the evidence suggests, murdered by genuine clients.

  • The growth of the mobile phone market and the internet has changed the shape of the sex industry, bringing its own dangers but overall making entry into the sex industry easier and in some ways arguably safer, despite the Government.

  • Percentages of street survival sex workers using Class A drugs has risen to the high 80s/low 90s, possibly as the non-drug addicted make more use of new technology.

We could add more.

Among the very temporary glimmers of light in this depressing saga of abject failure, between 2004 and 2006 the Home Office did actually float the idea of allowing managed areas for street prostitution and allowing small numbers of sex workers to work together. The ideas were, of course, lambasted by the red tops in the ceremonial fashion and none have been implemented.

In the words of Katherine Raymond, adviser to then Home Secretary David Blunkett:

Prostitution policy in Britain is a disgrace created by the interlinking scandals of political cowardice and public indifference.

Sex workers lead difficult and dangerous lives and the truth is that most people, including politicians, don’t care what happens to them.

The uncomfortable reality is that while these often pitiful girls and women cater to an eternal consumer demand, their lives are being put at greater risk by the lamentable failings of both government and law enforcement….

Brothels, giving women a safer place to work, should be made legal, and subject to licensing conditions. In Australia and New Zealand, brothels are regulated in the same way as other businesses, and strict laws prevent soliciting in streets, or near homes and schools. We should pilot managed areas such as in the Netherlands, regularly patrolled by police, where sex workers are given an area where they can safely take their customers. These so-called red light zones have their problems. But their existence can help reduce crime, and enhance the women’s safety.

Politicians are fond of telling people that theirs is a world of hard choices. It is time they made this one.

She wrote those words hot on the heels of Steve Wright’s murder spree in Ipswich in December 2006.

How many more killings have to occur before Government, in Cameron’s words, “ jump(s) to conclusions on this?”

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3 Comments
  1. Peter Corkindale permalink

    I have read this article with some interest as I am mentioned within it. I am still of the opinion that to create a safe enviroment is the only way to protect these women from the predators that prowl in what is seen as a murky and unsavoury trade. I believe that there are many and varied reasons why a women should choose to sell her body for sex and to pretend that drugs is the major reason is a bad mistake. Women who are trafficked and forced into this industry suffer major violence from the pimps who prey on them and drugs is in some way used to soften the pain. I agree that to licence the girls would help but if money is paid out to obtain such a licence then you again create an area where those who do not want to pay will operate illegally and once again be vunerable. By all means create a free register and licence brothels where women can look after each other and ensure that customers are aware that this is so. CCTV should be in use in the entry and waiting areas and signs clearly displayed about the building.
    There are many things that could be done to create a safe working enviroment for these girls but without political will more of these young women will lose their lives.
    I wonder what the response would be if a female member of Parliament was murdered walking home after a late sitting at the house it is nothing less than a scandal that this is allowed to continue in such a way.
    Finally it may be of interest to mention that whilst still a serving Police Officer and following the death of another young woman I wrote to Jack Straw when he was home secretary outlined my views and asking that a serious debate be entered into I still await his reply

  2. Hi Peter. I think your approach is very constructive. I must, of course, bow to your knowledge of the sex industry in Bradford, though I read some national Home Office research awhile back that suggested that in most cases, the drug addictions preceed the sex work. I think they act as a financial driver for (mostly) street survival sex workers, who appear (fortunately) to be very much the minority of sex workers.

    CCTV is also a tricky subject, with obvious advantages for security but also extensive opportunities for blackmail and other potential misuses of resultant images.

    We must take care not to prejudice the Griffiths trial on the web, but it would be interesting to keep in touch off-list. There’s bound to be an avalanche of media interest in the scenario on completion of the legal proceedings, and it would be very interesting to understand the urban geography of the policing and the events involved in the run-up the Bradford murders.

    Best, Stephen

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