BBC Local: Suffolk murders – decriminalisation for prostitution?

The Suffolk Murders of 2006 have yet again highlighted the problem of how to deal with ‘the oldest profession’. The government’s Criminal Justice & Immigration Bill is again reviewing the law on prostitution, but some say it doesn’t go far enough.

The Criminal Justice & Immigration Bill is passing through the Houses of Parliament and it covers a whole range of measures – including changes to existing prostitution law.

The changes relate to the street offence of loitering or soliciting, removing the term “common prostitute”.  Its main effect is to introduce a new sentence of persistent prostitution designed to encourage rehabilitation in place of fines which have been found to be counter-productive.

The original bill does not propose a wholesale revision of prostitution offences. But there has been a suggestion that ministers might press ahead with tougher measures to criminalise further those who buy sex – ie kerb-crawlers.

The government isn’t considering introducing the establishment of ‘tolerance zones’ for street prostitutes or for legalizing brothels, despite the fact the brothels masquerading as ‘massage parlours’ are already openly tolerated in Ipswich (read the feature on the Aquarius message parlour by clicking on the link on the right).

Listen to a report on the CJI bill from the BBC’s Jon Wright:

Opposition from the streets

However, there’s been a lot of disquiet about the bill from organisations representing prostitutes and organized labour.

In January 2008, during the trial of the serial killer Steve Wright, a public meeting was held at McGinty’s pub in Ipswich organised by the Ipswich & District Trades Union Council.

Carrie Mitchell, who’s from the English Collective of Prostitutes, said after the meeting: “There are two parts of the bill that we’re extremely concerned about.

“One is a clause that extends the definition of ‘persistance soliciting’. At the moment, a woman can be cautioned and arrested for loitering if they’re caught more than once in an evening.

“They want to extend that definition to more than once in three months. That means more women are going to be arrested as a result.

“The other clause introduces compulsory rehabilitation. It’s supposed to be an alternative to a fine, but it could mean women going to prison for up to 72 hours. It’s extremely draconian.

“Once you’re an illegal worker, the police do not give you the protection you need because, along with the authorities, they don’t feel your life is worth anything.

“Women cannot come forward and report attacks for fear of arrest, so men get away with attacking again and again.”

Tolerance zones

Charlotte used to work as a prostitute in Ipswich, but she’s now clean from drugs and has left the sex trade. She said:  “It looks like it’s taken five girls to die for anyone to do anything.

“I’d like to see it made safe and brothels legalised. The government could tax it. Put it on the outskirts of towns.”

Theresa Mackay, from the Ipswich & District Trades Union Council said: “Quite honestly, while we have the crime of poverty, deprivation, drug-addiction and all the rest of it, we’re never going to get rid of prostitution.

“The vast majority of prostitutes, certainly on the streets of Ipswich, are drug-addicts and have severe debt problems and are forced onto the streets for those very reasons. Criminalising them is not going to help them.

“Why criminalise these women? We’ve got too many women in our prisons already – it’s doubled in the last 10 years, yet here we are thinking about putting more women in prison.”

New thinking from NZ

Many different sorts of approaches to prostitution have been tried around the world. In New Zealand prostitution was decriminalised and brothels legalised five years ago.

Catherine Healy from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective was at the Ipswich meeting. She said the experience down under was positive: “Sex workers say they feel better about who they are and what they do.

“They feel more able to report violence. They feel they have an entitlement to protection and that justice should be done if there are wrongs.”

The Dutch have tried a similar approach. The BBC’s Alison Acton visited Amsterdam to see if it worked. The debate in Holland is still unclear as to whether you can protect street workers. You can watch her report by clicking on the link on the right.

The CJI bill is also dealing with changes to the laws on self-defence, pornography, banning prison officers from striking and inciting hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

It was introduced to the Houses of Parliament in June 2006 and is still in the committee stage at the start of 2008.

Listen to a report on the CJI bill from the BBC’s Jon Wright:

Prostitutes and the CJI bill >

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