Police operation condemned with claims that it will ‘push sex workers back on to the streets’
The Rev Simon Buckley, of St Anne’s rectory in Soho, has sent a report to the bishop of London and senior Metropolitan police officers airing his disquiet at an operation in response to crimes including trafficking and rape. His intervention comes as controversy deepens over attempts to clear out Soho’s brothels. On Friday a judge said that two sex workers’ flats, which had been recently closed in the raids, should be reopened, rejecting evidence that claimed they were being controlled by gangs.
Buckley highlighted concerns from sex workers that, despite police assurances that their welfare was paramount, the mass closure would push sex workers on to the streets, where “they are more vulnerable to abuse, attack and rape”.
During Operation Companion, 18 brothels were closed in raids involving 250 officers, many in riot gear, accompanied by dog units. The raids followed an undercover operation said to have linked the brothels to abuse and human trafficking. Commander Alison Newcomb, who is in charge of policing in Westminster, has justified targeting the flats, saying it was important to “close brothels where we have evidence of very serious crimes happening, including rape and human trafficking”.
However, no trafficking victims were found in the operation, and a letter from Newcomb, dated 27 January and seen by the Observer, reveals that “no specific number of women were suspected of being trafficked”. In his report Buckley writes: “There is a clear reversal of the rationale that we [community leaders] were given on the night of the operation.” He also claims he has received testimony from sex workers that at least one woman was forced into the street in only her underwear during the raids; that photographs of women appeared in the media because press photographers were invited on the operation; and that some women were threatened by police that their children or parents would be told they were working as prostitutes.
Met sources said they could not comment on Buckley’s allegations while legal action was ongoing. A statement from Scotland Yard said the raids were authorised by Westminster council and adhered to legal procedure. Newcomb’s letter said all media photographs accompanying the raid were taken in “public places”. She said the operation was not about vulnerable women but was chiefly intended to target a stolen goods hotspot while being alert for signs of trafficking.
Further complaints are likely to be heard on Monday when another appeal against one of the closure orders will be heard in Isleworth crown court.
Selling sex for money is not a criminal offence, but police can close brothels if they are able to prove that women are being “controlled” by others. However, one prostitute whose flat was closed in the raids told theObserver last week that it was “preposterous and demeaning” to suggest anyone other than the women themselves controlled the flats.
Soho sex workers allege that answers to “welfare” questionnaires given to them by police over the past 18 months were used as evidence against them. One said: “All the closure orders were based on answers to the questionnaire.” Campaigners say the safety of sex workers has been compromised by the closures by making some consider working on the street. The flats in Soho are viewed as safe, often with CCTV, heavy doors and live-in maids. Concerns for prostitutes working alone have intensified after Maria Duque-Tunjano, 48, was beaten to death while working in a flat in west London last month. Her death followed the killing of Mariana Popa, 24, from Romania, who was stabbed in Redbridge, east London, while working as a prostitute.
Niki Adams, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, said: “How many murders do they want before they leave us alone? Do they really want more girls on the street? That is what will happen.”
Adams said that Soho was one of the safest places to work and that most of the women evicted were mothers and grandmothers.