Experts warn sex workers at risk of attack if city police have to abandon tolerance

There are fears the new police force will pose a threat to Edinburgh's tolerant approach to prostitution
There are fears the new police force will pose a threat to Edinburgh's tolerant approach to prostitution
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PROSTITUTES in Edinburgh will be put at risk of attack and could be targeted by criminals if Scotland’s new single police force adopts a hardline policy on sex for sale, it was claimed today.

The Capital could be forced to abandon its traditionally more tolerant attitude to the sex industry if force bosses decide there must be a Scotland-wide approach to the issue across the country. And today 
support groups warned against turning the clock back 20 years.

Scotland’s eight police forces, including Lothian and Borders, will be merged into one police service from April.

There will be a national policing policy and commanders at local level will be responsible for drawing up local policing policies and consulting with councils and others.

At the moment, Scotland’s cities take different approaches to the sex industry. But it is not clear how much consistency of approach will be expected under the new set-up.

Strathclyde Police chief constable Stephen House will be in command of the single police force, and there has been concern this will lead to a tougher stance being taken against prostitution similar to the policies of Strathclyde.

Ruth Morgan-Thomas, co-ordinator of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, and formerly of support group ScotPep, said: “My concern is we lose the very pragmatic approach that has made Edinburgh a safe place for sex workers. If you adopt a policy of cracking down hard, raiding, arresting, fining, it creates an environment which is less safe.”

She said in Glasgow, around 90 per cent of prostitutes worked in the streets, facing appalling violence, while in Edinburgh 90 per cent were working indoors in a “relatively safe” environment.

And she said even for those in Edinburgh who were on the streets, the tolerance approach made it safer.

“If there was a new hard-line approach, you would lose the current establishments that are well known and where clients and others know that any sort of unacceptable behaviour would not be tolerated, and instead have hidden establishments that are trying to avoid the police, always moving on.”

The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS) has said work is under way to develop “standard operating procedures” for the new force. Assistant Chief Constable Graham Sinclair, ACPOS lead for public protection, said: “Prostitution is, very much routinely, a part of this. That work is ongoing and not yet complete.”

He added: “Our approach in tackling prostitution will continue to be considered, flexible and will combine appropriate enforcement with harm reduction, partnership working and education.”

Iain Whyte, convener of Lothian and Borders Police board and a member of the new Scottish Police Authority, said he hoped a pragmatic way forward would be taken.

“The new police service is set up with a direct link in terms of consultation on how local policing will be implemented between the local commander and the local authority. If we are to believe what the government is telling us, that will allow flexibility about local needs.”

Edinburgh SNP councillor Mike Bridgman, who chairs the city’s “pathfinder” committee looking at how the council will work with the new force, said: “One size doesn’t fit all. It should be up to local politicians to decide how to deal with local issues.”

Independent Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald, who tried to get a Bill through the Scottish Parliament to protect Edinburgh’s tolerance zone, voiced concerns about a possible change of stance thanks to the new single police force.

She said: “It’s coming through loud and clear that there is an expectation that the previous freedom to respond to the conditions in their own area which was enjoyed by Lothian and Borders, Grampian and Strathclyde is likely to be discontinued in favour of a centrally devised anti-prostitution programme.”

‘We turn blind eye to what goes on’

A COURT judgement 17 years ago was hailed as the death knell for Edinburgh’s “legal brothels”.

In May 1995, mother-of-two Debra Scanlan won a ruling that the council had broken the law by licensing a sauna near her home.

Sheriff Nigel Thomson said there was evidence – partly provided by an Evening News investigation – that the Gemini Leisure sauna in Iona Street, Leith, was a front for a brothel.

However, the Scottish HIV Action group warned the ruling would force sex-for-sale underground and increase street prostitution and the city’s tolerant attitude continued.

Then, at a council election hustings meeting earlier this year, City Centre Tory Joanna Mowat voiced her unease about the policy.

She said: “On the one hand we have pushed prostitution off the streets, but we are turning a blind eye to what is going on indoors.

“If we are going to tolerate the licensing of brothels, which is essentially what we do, perhaps we should license brothels. At the moment, there is an industry the council is complicit in, but it is not doing anything to support those working within it.

“I watch us clandestinely doing this, pretending we are licensing saunas, and it’s all about water temperatures.”

Campaigner Mike Anthony objected to a whole swathe of licence renewals last month, claiming councillors had been breaking the law for years by approving saunas which were effectively operating as brothels.

But the licensing committee granted the renewals despite his protests.

The strathclyde approach?

Iain Livingstone, Police Scotland Deputy Chief Constable, responsible for crime and operational support

“Police Scotland will build on the work of the existing forces to ensure we do all we can to keep members of the public safe. Officers will continue to use the full range of measures available to them to tackle criminal activity involving prostitution and sexual exploitation.

“It’s critical that while an overall national approach as a single police service is both logical and appropriate, local police commanders will work with their communities and councils on local needs.

“Protecting the public and the most vulnerable members of communities will remain central to what we do. We will do that through enforcement of the law against those who exploit the vulnerable, working with others to provide routes out of the sex industry for individuals, disruption of criminal networks or reducing demand through education and prevention work.

“These revised guidelines are welcomed by Police Scotland and are in line with our approach.”

George Lewis, co-chair ScotPep

“We are concerned about what would happen here in Edinburgh if the new police force decides to adopt the approach taken in Glasgow.

“Strathclyde is the largest police force and their chief constable is heading the new force. If their policy is allowed to hold sway, that obviously has severe implications for the approach that Lothian and Borders have taken towards the industry.

“Local solutions for local problems seems a sensible way forward – although we would like to see the Edinburgh model rolled out for the whole of Scotland.

“If the Glasgow approach were to become the national policy, the licensed sauna system would be under severe threat. In our view, the Edinburgh approach has worked well in terms of limiting HIV infection, as well as stopping the involvement of organised crime.

“If the saunas were no longer there, the women would either go and work on the streets or in private flats, under the radar, out of sight of the police, but also out of reach of health and support services.”