Brian Monteith: Saunas vote is slap for police

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Do you have a brandy or a whisky to hand? Are you sitting down? I advise you do, for I’m going to tell you something that I haven’t written for a very long time. In fact, I can’t remember when I last said this.

Edinburgh City Council deserves to be congratulated. There, I’ve said it. I’m not sure if it makes me feel any better, no great weight has lifted off my shoulders, but just in case you think I’m doing it for effect I’ll repeat it, this time with feeling. The good burghers of Edinburgh City Council have done the city proud, they have stood up to Police State Scotland and they deserve to be congratulated.

In case you have not been following the story, here’s a potted version. Long, long ago, when HIV/Aids was rearing its ugly head, the council adopted a policy of managing prostitution by allowing girls to ply their trade in saunas where they were safer and more discrete. The saunas avoided being termed brothels because any sex was a private affair between the girls and the clients. True, it sailed close to illegality but the upside was it took most of the seedy trade off the streets, protected the girls from threats of violence and provided much better protection against 

Most people saw it as a positive outcome – prostitutes were not hanging round street corners propositioning pedestrians and motorists, the police could get on dealing with other crimes and violent sexual attacks that were commonplace in Glasgow were relatively rare in Edinburgh.

Eventually Edinburgh had 13 licensed saunas applying annually to operate, giving the city council some leverage in making sure the businesses were run properly.

Then suddenly that all changed. The MSP for Edinburgh East and the SNP government’s justice secretary drove through the centralisation of Scotland’s police. Instead of eight local constabularies – such as Lothian and Borders’ finest – we ended up with only one, Police Scotland, under the command of its new chief constable, Sir Stephen House, formerly chief inspector of Glasgow’s bobbies, Strathclyde Police.

Soon all sort of changes started to be seen in Edinburgh, including more stopping and searching for knives and less investigation of burglaries. Edinburgh was being policed as if it was Glasgow. The changes were of course all denied strenuously but the evidence kept getting in the way of the police denials.

Just as the police have been having a little difficulty with honesty in the last year – down at Westminster and before that at Hillsborough – so too they would not admit they were taking a new approach towards Edinburgh’s saunas.

The fact that 150 officers had been used to raid six saunas one morning, turfing occupants out on to the street in plain sight, rather gave the game away. Still they denied they were doing things differently. Frankly, if they had tried that yarn under oath before a sheriff they would have been done for perjury.

Now to the present. On Wednesday the council had to decide what it should do about this year’s 13 licence applications – should it use its position of authority to ensure they are run decently under the law, or should it effectively snuff them out by bringing in all sorts of new restrictions or denying applications altogether? There was no mistaking the view of Police State Scotland which had all sorts of ideas about how to stop the saunas continuing.

One bizarre story included the banning of condoms in saunas, an idea that was likened to stopping the poaching of salmon by banning waders. Police State Scotland subsequently denied ever making such a request, but such is its developing reputation for speaking with forked tongue that few will give it the benefit of the doubt.

Step forward our brave councillors – as it requires guts to take on Police State Scotland – for they voted unanimously to approve seven licences and approved another two by majority if their signage was changed. There was no demand to ban sex toys or condoms. Police State Scotland’s officers made their case but were ignored. It was a slap in the face for Sir Stephen House and his policy of making Edinburgh like Glasgow.

Whatever we think of prostitution – whether you believe it immoral that a small number of women (or men) do not save their virtue for their lover, do not save themselves for the dignity of womankind, or save their body for their own self-respect, or think it’s a personal choice – prostitution will never disappear. Better then that we seek harm reduction by managing such behaviour, tackling the occupational hazards of organised crime, drugs, violence and blackmail – all of which are made worse by driving it underground where crime has the upper hand.

Our councillors have not only stood up to the undemocratic and unaccountable bullying of Police State Scotland, they are standing up to the criminals who would scar a woman mentally or physically without a second’s thought. Thank goodness this is Edinburgh and not Glasgow and there’s more to it than a castle and getting brown sauce on our chips.