Anti-social behaviour orders are increasingly being used against prostitutes as a “quick fix” way of clearing women off the streets, campaigners warn.
Probation officers and those who work with prostitutes say the orders have effectively brought back jail sentences for offences such as loitering and soliciting, which have been non-imprisonable for more than 10 years. Breaching the orders, brought in six years ago, is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in jail.
Cari Mitchell, from the English Collective of Prostitutes, said: “Asbos are being used as a quick way to solve deep problems without dealing with the core issues.
“In some cases it is inevitable that they will be broken, meaning that, in effect, Asbos have reintroduced prison for an offence which is not imprisonable.”
A full picture of the scale of their use against prostitution is almost impossible to establish because the Home Office, and many of the police forces where the orders are most heavily used, does not break down its figures according to the types of behaviour for which the orders are served.
A review by the Home Office three years ago found that 5% of Asbos dealt with prostitution, though this figure only represented a “selection” of the case files examined.
Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the probation officers’ union Napo, said: “What probation officers are reporting is that in the last six months or so, Asbos are increasingly being used in circumstances where they are wholly inappropriate.
“Some local authorities, in conjunction with police, are using them as a way of clearing the streets of people whose behaviour is undesirable, but not antisocial.
“The actual offence of prostitution is not imprisonable, but we are ending up with people facing up to five years in prison for it.”
The consequences for the women involved can be disastrous, according to those who work with prostitutes.
Diane Martin is the manager of Trust, a community project supporting sex workers in south London, where the majority of women involved in prostitution do so to pay for drugs. Many are homeless and an increasing number have mental health problems.
Ms Martin said the orders often displaced women rather than addressing the reasons why they were working on the street. She knew of several women who had begun working in Lambeth after being issued with Asbos elsewhere. Another woman had been imprisoned three times after breaching the orders, resulting in her losing a rare place in a women-only hostel the Trust had negotiated for her.
“For some it may be considered effective if an individual is no longer seen in a particular location, but where is that woman? It is unlikely that the issuing of an Asbo has resulted in her drug use and lack of accommodation being instantly resolved,” she said.
“We do not believe it is appropriate to use Asbos as a strategy to deter street sex work, and we feel it is ineffective and irresponsible to simply shove the problem to another area.”
Ms Mitchell said she knew of prostitute women, frightened of being served an Asbo, who had begun working alone – and more often in back-streets to avoid detection.
“The main consequence for women working on the streets is that they take more risks to make money and are more at risk of violence,” she said.
Mr Fletcher said he knew of one woman who was ordered not to carry condoms and banned from the area of the city where her health clinic was located.
“It’s an absolute scandal,” said Matt Foot, a solicitor who set up the campaigning group Asbo Concern. “We decided a long time ago that, as a civilised society, prostitutes should not go to prison.”
Asbos were introduced under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. They can be served against anyone over the age of 10 for acting “in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household”.
Government figures show that 42% of the orders are breached and 55% of those who do so receive a custodial sentence.
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said Asbos were successful in reducing some forms of antisocial behaviour, but admitted they might not address prostitution effectively.
“Sometimes the behaviour of those in prostitution can be seriously antisocial,” she said. “Communities deserve action to be taken to protect them from such behaviour.”