Edinburgh could axe lenient approach to sex saunas

A number of saunas were raided in June. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
A number of saunas were raided in June. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Edinburgh’s long-standing policy of licensing saunas could be abandoned under pressure from the police.

The Capital’s pragmatic policy of turning a blind eye to sex for sale has been under threat since the creation of a single police force covering the whole of Scotland.

Now council chiefs are said to be considering dropping saunas and massage parlours from the list of premises which require a licence to operate.

The move would leave the saunas to “take their chances with the police”, one insider said.

It follows a series of police raids in June, which resulted in ten arrests for brothel -keeping and living off immoral earnings and a decision to suspend the licences of six out of the Capital’s 13 saunas.

The city council first granted public entertainment licences to saunas in the mid-1980s as part of an attempt to manage prostitution and tackle the city’s HIV infection rates.

Police Scotland, set up in April under former Strathclyde chief constable Sir Stephen House, is seen as being unsympathetic to the Capital’s approach, though the force insists there has been no change of policy.

One council source said the licensing of saunas could only work if the public bodies in the city agree on the policy, a consensus now shattered by the police.

The source said the status quo was becoming untenable. “If we continue as before, we will be constantly challenged in court and in committee.”

Sauna bosses last week abandoned plans to appeal against the suspension of their licences. A threat to reveal a list of public figures who have visited the massage parlours – a so-called “hypocrisy hit list” said to include police officers, lawyers and celebrities – has not so far materialised.

Jenny Kemp, the co-ordinator at the Zero Tolerance charity, said: “It’s always been a nonsense that Edinburgh’s saunas are licensed under the same regime as sunbeds, amusement arcades and funfairs. Buying sex is exploitation, not entertainment. Taking saunas out of this resolution is sensible and long overdue.”

But Independent Lothian MSP Margo MacDonald, who supports the licensing of saunas, said: “Stephen House promised that the single force would still have local policing, but there has been nothing local in the approach.

“He has taken a developed policy that has had the acquiescence of civic society and destroyed it. It has been the tackety-boot approach.”

Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Edie said: “The approach traditionally taken by many administrations in 
Edinburgh has been a realistic one that recognises we are never going to eradicate the sex industry and that licensing saunas allows various partners to work with the workers to try to best ensure their safety and health, working to ensure the least worse outcomes.

“I am concerned that the approach suggested would increase street prostitution, which is far more dangerous and would drive much of this activity underground.”

A Police Scotland spokesman said: “As part of our commitment to keeping people safe, we regularly undertake inspections 
of Edinburgh’s licensed premises with partner agencies and report all offences to the appropriate authority.

“Any business operating within the capital will continue to be subject to these inspections.”

A council spokesman said: “These premises remain licensed and in due course the council will determine the outstanding applications to renew these licences.”