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Two sex workers’ flats in Soho, central London were yesterday re-opened by a judge at Isleworth Crown Court. Judge JW Kingston rejected police evidence that women working in walk-up flats in Brewer Street were being controlled or incited into prostitution for gain. He overturned the closure order and directed that the flat could reopen.
Judge Kingston’s decision brought for the first time some common sense to legal cases, which have been rumbling through the courts since mass raids at the beginning of December closed 18 flats. He ruled that: “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 within the meaning of Section 53 [of the Sexual Offences Act 2003].”
Ms Lori Bora who has worked at the premises for five years and who gave evidence in court, commented:
“I am very pleased that justice was served. The police should be ashamed of themselves to accuse us of being controlled when they know very well we are not. Nobody tells me when and how long to work. To the judge I say that he is welcome to come down and see us girls in Soho at any time . . . for a cup of tea. Good luck to the other girls who are in court on Monday [24th Feb] trying to reopen their flat.”
Niki Adams, English Collective of Prostitutes, who gave evidence in support of the two women, commented:
“These closures should never have come to court. The police misled the public and claimed that they were needed to prevent rape and trafficking. No victims of trafficking were found; instead the police threw women out of the relative safety of their flats. This decision is timely as women have been without an income since the beginning of December. Many are in debt and some were about to be made homeless.”
In her evidence to the court Ms Adams highlighted the issue of safety “Soho is one of the safest places for women to work as they have a maid or receptionist with them, CCTV to monitor clients and the solid support of the local community.”
Most of the women who were evicted in Soho are mothers and grandmothers; some have been part of the Soho community for decades. Local people are alarmed that the closures are to make way for the gentrification of historic Soho, what actor Rupert Everett described as “a land-grab, facilitated by the police.”
The Soho vicar, Rev’d Buckley, has expressed concern that the “safety and well-being of a section of our community has been jeopardised by this operation”.
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Demand the closure order against Greek St flat in Soho be withdrawn.
1. These closures came about from mass police raids on Soho flats on 4 December 2013. 200 officers in riot gear with dogs (accompanied by the media who published identifiable photos), broke down doors, handcuffed women and dragged at least one woman out in her underwear. Closure Notices were issued against 18 flats and Closure Orders were then confirmed by a district judge at Hammersmith Magistrates Court in subsequent court cases.
2. Closure Orders (Sexual Offences Act 2003, amended by the Policing and Crime Act 2009) give the police and courts powers to close premises for up to six months if police can show that “activities related to” prostitution offences are being committed namely “controlling for gain” and “causing and inciting prostitution”.
3. Each of the court cases followed a similar pattern. Women gave evidence that they were working independently and consensually and were not controlled. One woman explained: “Another sex worker told me about the address and that it was a good job . . . I decided to work as a prostitute . . . I wanted a better life and to support my two sons”.
4. Police claimed in court that women were controlled because they were “required to work certain days of the week, between certain times and charge a specified amount of money for each service”. No “controller” was named or identified.
5. In every case heard by District Judge Susan Williams and Judge Goodwin the police evidence was rubber stamped no matter how ludicrous. Williams specified that she found sex workers’ evidence “truthful”, admitted that “no evidence has been put before me of force and coercion” and acknowledged that a maid “is considered essential for safety”. But she went on to rule that the “lure of gain and the hope of a better life” for women who were “desperate to earn some money” amounted to “control” and “incitement”. Why is women’s poverty and the determination to get out of it being used to justify the closure of safer premises? How is this different from any other job? Aren’t all workers “incited” to work by the “lure of gain and the hope for a better life”? Should they be doing it for free? Once again sex workers are being discriminated against.
6. Westminster Council backed the raids despite Cllr. Nickie Aiken’s claims that: “Our policy is that if a brothel is just providing a sex service, we just turn a blind eye because we think it is safer for the women and safer for the residents and other businesses around.”
7. Met police commander Alison Newcomb misled the press by presenting the raids as necessary to “close brothels where we have evidence of very serious crimes happening, including rape and human trafficking.” But in NONE of the Closure Order cases has there been any evidence of rape or trafficking. Newcomb later admitted that “no specific number of women were suspected of being trafficked.” Some immigrant women were held for hours despite protesting they were not trafficked. The Met Police just got European Union funding to tackle trafficking – were the raids staged to justify this money and get more?
8. The case raised crucial issues. If police claims that women were controlled were allowed to stand, despite no evidence of force and coercion or even a named “operator” actively “directing” activities, then any sex worker flat anywhere can be closed, in fact any flat – if a friend helps a sex worker design a website, that can be taken as evidence of control and the flat closed. Thirty-seven premises were recently closed in Newham. Who will be safe then?
9. Senior police officers recently acknowledged that: “operations to tackle the trade are ‘counterproductive’ and likely to put the lives of women at risk”. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jan/19/woman-killed-prostitute-police-blame
10. The prostitution laws which give police enormous powers to criminalise sex workers have resulted in abuses of power particularly against women working on the street. One woman described the discrimination and degradation she faces.
“The police wait outside my house to catch me when I leave. It doesn’t matter how I’m dressed, who I’m with, where I’m going, they say I’m loitering. When they stop me they jeer at me, and make jokes at my expense, often sexually explicit jokes. When they arrest me I’m strip searched and they sometimes leave the door open so the male officers can see in. All this is to humiliate me.”
11.A motion by MEP Mary Honeyball to criminalise the clients of sex workers is due to be voted on in the European Parliament on 27th February. At a time of economic crisis when poverty among women and children is rising throughout Europe and more women, particularly mothers, are working in the sex industry to survive, how can women who call themselves feminists and claim to be concerned about women’s welfare justify prioritising an initiative against prostitution. False claims about trafficking are being used to justify this crackdown. Criminalising clients will not stop prostitution, nor will it stop the criminalisation of women. But it will make more dangerous and stigmatising for those of us who work as prostitutes.
12.New Zealand decriminalised 11 years ago, with verifiable improvements in sex workers health and welfare. Canada’s Supreme Court just ruled that criminalisation breached sex workers’ human rights.