Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent
Labour frontbencher Keir Starmer concerned about priorities of Met police after spate of robberies of premises used for sex work in London
Scotland Yard has been accused of threatening to prosecute women who work in brothels rather than pursue an armed gang of robbers who have been repeatedly targeting premises used for sex work.
The row over the way in which crimes are prioritised highlights the confusion surrounding prostitution laws in the UK and the way in which the government’s victims’ code is operated.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer – who was the director of public prosecutions before he became a Labour MP – has written to the Metropolitan police in support of one of the victims of the armed robbers, who is a constituent of his.
Starmer said letters sent by the Met threatening women with prosecution under the 1956 Sexual Offences Act “could make it more difficult to stay in touch with victims of violent crimes and therefore hinder a future prosecution”.
One letter left by officers at premises in Enfield, east London, said it was suspected the property was being used as a brothel and that “any female at this address now, who is found at this same address in the future, is very likely to be arrested”.
The Met denies there is evidence of connected attacks on brothels and insists that criminalising prostitutes is not a priority. Officers have offered to meet women’s rights campaigners about the Enfield robbery, the force said.
Selling sex is not illegal in the UK but most associated activities are proscribed. Women discovered working together in a single premises are likely to be charged with managing, or assisting in the management of, a brothel, which is illegal under section 33A of the Sexual Offences Act.
There have been numerous attempts to reform the law but there is no consensus about what shape future legislation should take.
Last week a 70-year-old woman, Christy Norman, who worked as a cleaner two days a week at a house in Poole, was convicted of helping run a brothel. She had dialled 999 after a man collapsed and gave emergency CPR resuscitation; everybody else had fled the premises.
Because of the legal ambiguity, there is an assumption that sex workers will not call the police if attacked. The frequent presence of large sums of cash means that brothels are a soft target for criminals posing as customers.
Gang members are said to stake out brothels in advance, to establish the layout and any security measures. Brothels in Cricklewood, Redbridge and Deptford are among those to have been robbed recently, sex workers say.
The Enfield attack happened at 12.30am on 24 June. A Brazilian woman working there who was robbed at knifepoint said: “The security guard opened the door to a customer, told him to take his hoodie off and then there were about five or six guys. Some of them had big knives.
“One of the guys came into my room and was asking where the money was. We told them but they started searching for other places where girls hide their cash.
“One of the girls was kept in another room. She said the men tried to touch her bra to see if she had any money there. Some of them were wearing gloves. They were all in their 20s. They also took a laptop and a phone.
“After they had gone I called 999. The police arrived in five or 10 minutes. The officers asked how many customers we had each day. They didn’t give me a crime reference number. They later called back a woman who didn’t speak English.” Other forensic evidence that could have been collected was missed, she said.
Anne-Marie, not her real name, added: “A women in another house that was robbed sent me pictures of the men. They were wearing masks. They looked familiar.” She believes she recognised them.
“In most cases the girls don’t call the police. One [robber] told them: ‘Don’t worry you will earn back more money’. He said that he went back and robbed the same place a week later.”
Soon after the Enfield robbery, a letter arrived from police telling the women they could be prosecuted for running a brothel. “I felt I had to leave that place,” Anne-Marie said. “The police were not looking into the robbery, they were just kicking us out.”
Niki Adams, a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, which campaigns for the rights of sex workers, said she knew of several recent attacks on brothels in London that appear to be the work of a gang armed with knives and, in one case, guns.
“The violence may escalate,” she warned. “We have seen that in other attacks it does. For the police to prioritise prosecuting women over protection from violence is very worrying for the community.
“Women’s safety is being [compromised]. It goes against the home affairs committee’s call last year for women sharing premises to be decriminalised. The police are permitting a terror campaign against sex workers. Even having a key [to enter the premises] is deemed to be assisting in running a brothel.”
Responding to the allegations, a Met spokesperson said: “Police are investigating reports of a robbery at premises in Enfield on 24 June at around 00:30hrs. There were no reported injuries. There have been no arrests at this stage, but enquiries continue. Officers subsequently made contact with the victim/s to inform them on the progress of the investigation.
“As a law enforcement agency, the safety of people engaged in sex work is paramount to the police and tackling violence against women and girls is also a priority for the Met police.
The Met confirmed it had sent a letter to the premises setting out the laws surrounding prostitution, but added: “We are continuing to develop a consistent approach across London to dealing with the impact of sex work on the vulnerable, and working in partnership with support agencies to offer individuals pathways into support services and out of prostitution. This of course does not rule out use of legislation where other options have been exhausted, or it is the appropriate action to take in the circumstances.”