Police and health home visits to help sex workers

Police-NHS project aims to raise awareness of health clinic services ' and rebuild trust. Picture: Neil Hanna

Police-NHS project aims to raise awareness of health clinic services ' and rebuild trust. Picture: Neil Hanna

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HEALTH workers and police in Edinburgh are to start visiting sex workers in their flats in the hope it will encourage them to access services.

The joint initiative by Police Scotland and NHS Lothian will be launched later this month as a response to the trend away from street prostitution and saunas to apartments and hotel rooms where women ply their trade alone.

The move comes two years after Police Scotland carried out high-profile raids on previously tolerated Edinburgh saunas, sparking concerns of a new policy of actively targeting and prosecuting prostitutes.

As a result of the raids, the relationship between Police Scotland and sex workers deteriorated; many moved out of the saunas and the number accessing a weekly clinic for sex workers and women with substance abuse problems fell.

This latest venture is an extension of Operation Lingle in which police officers and members of Community Safety Glasgow paid welfare visits to prostitutes working out of flats in the city.

Operation Lingle was criticised by sex workers charity Scot-Pep, which claimed it could usher in “punitive raids in disguise”. It said neighbours were being asked to tip off the police about anyone they believed was selling sex, and it said women felt intimidated by the knock at their doors.

In Edinburgh, the emphasis will be on raising awareness of health issues, such as vaccination against hepatitis B, and on advertising the clinic’s services. As such, the visits are being touted as a means of repairing the damage and rebuilding trust. “This is victim-focused,” said Dr Alison Scott, the consultant gynaecologist who runs the clinics. “The police are not out there to criminalise the women in any way whatsoever – they are very clear about that.

“I was suspicious to start with. I didn’t want to be involved in anything which would criminalise women but I haven’t spoken to one officer who is giving that message.”

Last night, however, Scot-Pep questioned the need for police officers to be part of the process or for the visits to be unannounced. “We hope any move by the service providers in Edinburgh to reach out to sex workers is underpinned by respect for their privacy, and that intrusive police sur­veillance tactics that were used in Glasgow are avoided to ­ensure all efforts are informed by a rights-based perspective and subsequent approach,” said Anastacia, a board ­member.

“We would encourage those hoping to expand and improve service delivery to sex workers to engage with sex worker-led organisations in all levels of planning, implementation and monitoring.”

Scott set up her clinic nine years ago because she was concerned sex workers with chaotic lifestyles were failing to access NHS Lothian’s sexual services, and an outreach service quickly followed. Back then, two members of the team – which includes a mental health nurse, a sexual health nurse and a representative from ­Another Way (a Sacro project offering help with ­addictions, domestic abuse, housing and exiting sex work) – would visit most of Edinburgh’s saunas once a fortnight.

The clinic now carries out 300-400 consultations a year and visits to the saunas continue. There is also a mobile unit in Leith five nights a week. But the expansion of social media means more sex workers now work from flats and advertise their services online.

“We are having to change the service to keep up with the way things are moving, which is increasingly internet and mobile-based, so we send texts round all the women who are advertising online telling them about the clinic and when it’s open, because otherwise how do we get the message out there?” Scott says.

Surprise visits are also being carried out by Police Scotland’s Tayside Intensive Support Service in conjunction with Vice Versa which is linked with the Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre in Dundee.

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