Anger as council scraps sex sauna licensing

Until today, city saunas have been licensed
Until today, city saunas have been licensed
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LICENSING chiefs have sparked fury by describing their decision to axe their regulation of the city’s sex trade as “courageous”.

They have also called on Police Scotland to adopt a “pragmatic approach” to parlours in future – a step which has sparked ire from safety campaigners who say the move will simply force women into a more vulnerable position.

The war of words broke out after councillors unanimously voted to abandon the controversial policy – that has allowed entertainment licences to be issued to sex-for-sale saunas since 1986 – amid claims the system could not be used to “regulate activities that would otherwise be illegal”.

Sex workers have warned the decision to scrap the licensing system for Edinburgh’s massage parlours will place those in the trade “at risk” and could spark spiralling rates of HIV infection.

But licensing convenor Cllr Gavin Barrie said some sauna owners viewed the public entertainments licences as a “comfort blanket” but insisted the city could no longer ignore alleged “criminal activity”.

He said: “I would hope that Police Scotland would take the opportunity for a pragmatic approach. At the end of the day it’s up to the police – albeit we’d like to think they would do it with the consent of local people.”

However, the charity Scot-Pep – which supports sex workers across Scotland – was less generous about the local authority’s “courageous” removal of licences and issued stark warnings about its consequences for public health. They said the step would “erode the already shaken trust” sex workers have in the justice system and lead to more street-walkers across Edinburgh.

Scot-Pep’s Neil McCulloch said: “Premises will be driven underground, away from service providers such as health workers. Police Scotland and Edinburgh City Council would do well to recall that the saunas were put in place to tackle the HIV/AIDs crisis of the 1980s.

“Complacency on this issue is ill-founded. HIV was successfully tackled in Edinburgh through policies that

centred on harm reduction; if we remove those policies, we may well see a corresponding rise in HIV transmission.”

He claimed abandoning Edinburgh’s long-established approach would put sex workers “at risk” and reiterated calls for full decriminalisation.

Massage parlours operating within the Capital have had to re-apply for an entertainment licence every three years and face regular inspections by officers from health and safety and Trading Standards.

But critics accused licensing chiefs of turning a blind eye to activities taking place inside.

A series of police raids last March uncovered evidence of serious organised crime and led to licences for seven saunas being revoked. Councillors acted following a warning from Susan Mooney, head of the communities department, who said the current model was no longer sustainable.

She said: “From a licensing perspective the council cannot use the licensing system to regulate activities that would otherwise be illegal.”

Campaigner Michael Anthony, who has mounted several legal challenges against the controversial licensing policy, accused councillors of “hanging themselves” by providing “absolute proof” they had “condoned” illegal sex work in the city.

Mr Anthony said he would formally lodge misconduct complaints against councillors for being “party” to the “crimes” taking place within saunas and massage parlours. He branded the decision a “con on the public”.

“The police are aware of this, and the public standards commissioner is aware that a complaint is coming and I shall send a copy of those complaints to the Justice Minister and the Home Secretary because it is unthinkable that we can have locally elected councillors who will support organised criminals more than they will support society.”

A Police Scotland spokesman said they had “noted” the City Chambers’ decision. He said they would “work alongside our relevant partner agencies to provide the necessary support to those affected as part of our commitment to harm reduction and protecting vulnerable individuals”.

Analysis

By Jenny Kemp, Co-ordinator, Zero Tolerance charity

We agree with the council that its practice of licensing saunas and massage parlours was not achieving its aim of harm reduction, but, more fundamentally, we’ve never thought of prostitution as a legitimate form of “public entertainment”. It’s a practice that thrives on exploitation and on women’s social inequality.

We’re glad the council is working on a harm reduction framework and hope this work will be properly funded.

The council can’t turn its back on a problem of its own making – it needs to invest in exit and support services for women who want out of prostitution.