SEX workers fear council plans to end the licensing system for the city’s saunas will pave the way for police to close the premises down – leaving women more at risk, it was claimed today.
Councillors are expected to agree on Friday that saunas and massage parlours should no longer be included on the list of venues which require a public entertainment licence.
The move will mark the end of a decades-long system which embodied Edinburgh’s pragmatic approach to prostitution and extended some much-needed protection to the women working in the industry.
But critics of the proposal say it will give Police Scotland the opportunity to shut down most or all of the Capital’s 13 saunas.
Independent Lothian MSP Margo MacDonald said: “I fear this does not herald a brave new chapter in Edinburgh’s success story of managing the sex industry in the city.
“It’s an open secret the new regime at the police view things differently from Lothian & Borders and these women fear they will attempt to shut down saunas for reasons which I’m sure they will be able to find if they look hard enough, but really it will be because they suspect sexual services are being sold on the premises.” But Ms MacDonald said shutting the saunas would not mean an end to sex for sale.
“The services will be offered in other ways and other places without the sort of supervision and restrictions there are just now, leaving women open to more risk and society open to greater public health risks.
“If there was something better to put in their place, you wouldn’t find me defending the saunas, but so far no-one has been able to come up with anything better.”
Neil McCulloch, of sex workers’ charity Scot-Pep, warned against a “punitive” approach by the police.
He said: “Up until now the police supported the pragmatic approach, but that has changed.
“We intend to be in discussion with the police to make sure sex workers rights are respected and their needs are at the top of the agenda.”
He said all sorts of scenario were possible once licensing ends. “These premises could continue to operate without a licence. Some people could choose to move away from the saunas if the police come in with a heavy-handed attitude.
“People could end up working from flats if saunas are shut down, some might choose to work on the streets, some women could choose to work independently.
“It’s a great shame the pragmatic approach to licensing saunas is going to change, but it is clear this has become a toxic issue for the council.”
A council insider said after licensing ends, saunas would still be subject to trading standards and health and safety rules, but politicians would not be put in an awkward situation.
“At the moment councillors are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. I don’t know if there is a police strategy to phase out the saunas, but there is a feeling the sex industry in Edinburgh is changing, so the saunas were probably coming to an end anyway.”