Members of the English Collective of Prostitutes were joined by Soho residents on Wednesday in a noon protest against the raids. They also collected signatures in opposition to a move in the European Parliament to criminalise sex workers’ clients.
by WILLIAM McLENNAN
A VICAR has said public confidence in the police has been “severely undermined” by the “seemingly ham-fisted nature” of raids on Soho brothels.
The Reverend Simon Buckley, of St Anne’s Church in Dean Street, wrote to the Bishop of London to raise his concerns about last December’s operation, in which 200 officers swooped on dozens of businesses in Soho.
He said: “There is in my mind a clear case that something has gone extremely wrong here.”
Included in his report, seen by the West End Extra, was a string of allegations made by sex workers about their treatment during the raids, which Rev Buckley said amounted to “unacceptable and at times unlawful behaviour” by police officers.
He was among a small group of community leaders, including several residents and councillors, who were briefed on the operation moments before it went ahead.
Rev Buckley said the Met’s justification for the raids was initially “compelling” and he was told that police had found evidence of “fencing” – trade in stolen goods – which was fuelling the local crack-cocaine market.
But police did not mention this when they sought closure orders to shutter 18 flats across Soho, instead relying on a breach of the Sexual Offences Act.
Rev Buckley said: “This is a clear reversal of the rationale that we were given on the night of the operation.
“There is a feeling that the police are having to change their story to justify an unsuccessful operation”.
Police had assured Rev Buckley and others that “prostitution and the girls themselves, were not the focus of this operation”.
“We were given assurance that the girls would be treated with respect, that a safe place was set up for them with various kinds of support and that their welfare and safety was paramount,” said Rev Buckley.
However, three months after the doors were kicked down, he believes the operation has had the opposite outcome and said sex workers’ safety has been “jeopardised”.
He said women whose flats were closed are “now forced to explore other means of supporting themselves”, adding: “I am told this is most likely by working on streets outside Soho where they are far more vulnerable to abuse, attack and rape.
“The girls who continue to work in the unclosed flats say that they would not feel confident in turning to the police if they were a victim of crime.”
Rev Buckley said that as the local parish priest he felt compelled to speak up on behalf of “the girls and the wider community of Soho”.
He said Detective Superintendent Kevin Southworth, who led the operation, had told him the intention was not to target sex workers, but “the crime that gathered around them”.
Rev Buckley said: “This appeared laudable, and my analogy for this operation is that its intention was akin to trying to remove greenfly gathering on plants and blighting a garden. However I would question whether the best method to remove greenfly is by trampling on the flowerbeds and ripping up the plants.”
After holding several meetings with the women, Rev Buckley provided a list of their complaints, which include:
• body searches conducted by male officers;
• access denied to basic item of clothing;
• one girl being forced into the street wearing only her underwear;
• no receipts were given for goods taken as evidence, which in one case was £475 cash;
• images of the women appearing in the press, after police invited photographers;
• police threatening to tell women’s children and parents that they were prostitutes;
• women being removed from rooms that were being searched.
Rev Buckley said this was in “sharp contrast to the respect and care we were promised they would receive”.
Twenty people were arrested on “suspicion of handling stolen goods” on the night and the Met said eight women have been charged or cautioned.
There have been growing rumours that the raids and subsequent attempts to close flats were linked to wider plans to redevelop the area – described by many as the “sanitisation of Soho”.
Rev Buckley added: “There is a widespread feeling in the community that, especially as the rationale for the raids appears to shift, the police are not being honest about the real reason for the operation. I regret to say that trust and confidence in the police, which as with many institutions, including the Church, is not high in many people’s opinion, has been severely undermined by the seemingly ham-fisted nature of this operation.”
Scotland Yard said they had not received any formal complaints.
THE MAJOR PLAYERS… Reactions to controversial Soho raids
Rupert Everett: “It’s just a land grab, facilitated by the police.”
The actor has been fiercely defending the rights of sex workers and even attended court to support women as police sought closure orders to shutter walk-up flats in Soho. Mr Everett – who starred in My Best Friend’s Wedding alongside Julia Roberts – told the West End Extra in the days after the raids: “It’s just a land-grab, facilitated by the police. It’s the puritanical sanitisation of London. London has become Monaco, it’s a tax haven for the ultra-rich and we haven’t even noticed.” He wrote a 3,000-word feature for the Observer, in which he said: “Our historic village of vagrants and immigrants, of hookers and queens, of cheese shops and coffee shops and sex shops and peep shows… is being reduced to a giant waxwork in a museum.”
DS Kevin Southworth: “Watched too many episodes of The Wire?”
The raids were the brainchild of Detective Superintendent Kevin Southworth. He said he had discovered a link between the “fencing” – the sale of stolen goods – and the crack-cocaine market in Soho. He said undercover officers had collected evidence of the sale of stolen goods in sex shops, brothels and a mini-cab office. He dismissed rumours that the raids were connected to Soho Estate’s £10m redevelopment of Walkers Court, Peter Street and Brewer Street – instead telling the West End Extra in January: “I just came here two years ago, and maybe I’d watched too many episodes of The Wire, but I didn’t want to leave here with Soho still the crime hotspot it was.” DS Southworth was part of the police team that pursued Jean Charles de Menezes before the Brazilian national was fatally shot at Stockwell tube station in 2005.
Rev Simon Buckley: “Confidence undermined by ham-fisted police operation.”
Reverend Simon Buckley was whisked off to a control room at Lambeth Police Station on the night of the raids, where he was briefed on the plans. He said the case put by the Met, relating to “fencing” and drug dealing, had initially appeared “compelling”. Rev Buckley, who took over St Anne’s last year, had a successful career as a puppeteer, including sketch show Spitting Image, before he joined the Church of England. He hosted a public meeting at the church in January on behalf of the Met to let them justify their operation in the face of growing local opposition. But, he said: “Sadly this meeting did not clear the air, but rather from that time onwards confidence in the police’s rationale and conduct of this operation has been severely undermined.”
The Girls of Soho: “Working on the street is 10 times more dangerous.”
Sex workers have borne the brunt of an operation ostensibly aimed at the trade in stolen goods. When their flats were raided they reported maltreatment at the hands of the police. Flats were then boarded up as police sought closure orders. Eighteen were granted, despite courts hearing evidence that the women worked of their own free will and may be forced to work in more dangerous conditions as a result of the closures. Niki Adams, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, told Isleworth Crown Court: “If the premises are closed, women may well end up working on the street where evidence shows it is 10 times more dangerous to work.”
Court overturns police closure
TWO sex workers have successfully overturned a court order that had closed the Soho flat where they worked.
The pair took the Metropolitan Police to court to appeal against a closure order issued against a flat in Brewer Street last year.
Last week an appeal tribunal at Isleworth Crown Court dismissed the Met’s claims that the women were being “controlled” by an unknown individual.
In a written judgement, Recorder John Kingston said: “[The Met] says that, taking the evidence together, it is clear that, on the balance of probabilities, someone was controlling the activities of the appellants….We disagree. In our view, the furthest the evidence goes is to show that the appellants used the first and second floor flats for prostitution by arrangement with other sex workers at mutually convenient and agreed times. That does not constitute control.”
While it is not illegal to sell sex, the police had claimed they gathered evidence that Section 53 of the Sexual Offences Act – which makes an offence of controlling another person’s prostitution – was being broken.
The two women, represented by Soho-based solicitor Richard Barca, had told the court that they worked at the Brewer Street flat of their own free will and were not controlled by anyone.
The judgement stated: “Again, while it is clear from the evidence that the premises were being used as a brothel, none of those questioned gave evidence to show that the sexual activities were being controlled by a third person.”
The police had claimed that the presence of a sign that read “models 1st and 2nd FLOOR COME AND SEE” indicated that an unknown person was profiting from the women’s work.
But the court heard that women had clubbed together to buy the sign to have it installed above the door.