Edinburgh’s sauna sex workers need protection, MSP says

There are calls to decriminalise prostitution. File picture: Toby Williams
There are calls to decriminalise prostitution. File picture: Toby Williams
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A FAILED police crackdown on the Capital’s sex trade has sparked calls for a law which would decriminalise ­prostitution.

Jean Urquhart, independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said a Crown Office decision not to pursue charges against Edinburgh-based ­saunas for alleged brothel-keeping highlighted the need for change.

Many of the city’s saunas have long been seen as fronts for the sex trade.

But a series of police raids in 2013, soon after the formation of Police Scotland, was viewed as signalling the end of Edinburgh’s “traditional pragmatic approach” under the former Lothian and Borders force.

Six men and five women were set for a court hearing in November following the operation, but prosecutors abandoned the proceedings.

However, they could still raise them again in the future.

Ms Urquhart, who has proposed the Prostitution Law Reform (Scotland) Bill, said: “There should be open legislation for the saunas. I don’t think we would want the police to be made to look like fools in this case – that would be outrageous. They did the work they thought they should do.

“That’s why we need clarity about the law itself, rather than going back to Edinburgh’s ‘turn a blind eye’ approach. That worked for a while, but now the jack is out of the box, I don’t see how we could go back to that.

“Nobody is satisfied with a law that can be bent in someone’s favour. The law needs to be changed. My bill is about giving sex workers the same rights as they would have in any other industry.”

Before the 2013 raids, the city council provided saunas with public entertainment licences as part of Edinburgh’s softer approach to the sex trade.

Supporters of the system, which amounted to the decriminalisation of prostitution, argued that it kept sex workers safe.

However, as a result of the raids, council chiefs ripped up their long-standing policy by no longer licensing the saunas, which now operate on an unregulated basis.

Police bosses today said they would strive to protect individuals against harm and coercion.

Chief Superintendent Kenny MacDonald, Edinburgh local policing commander, said: “[We] will continue to do every­thing we can, working with local partners, to ensure that people who may be being exploited in this way have confidence to seek help and are provided with routes out of prostitution if they so wish.

“By offering this support together in specific areas like healthcare and housing, collectively we are building trust with men and women who are involved and encouraging the reporting of information and concerns to police or independent third parties.”

He added: “Where the police have information regarding organised criminal activity or the coercion or exploitation of individuals, the public would rightly expect us to respond.”

City council leaders declined to comment on the Crown’s decision.