Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Finally, a vice law which fits the Bill

The Evening News
Wed 2 Nov 2005


LET'S hope it's all over bar the shouting... no, not the outcome of the Premier League championship, the beginning of the end of the debate on how best to manage street prostitution.

Yesterday's announcement from Deputy Justice Minister Hugh Henry contained a passing nod to people who believe in zero tolerance of prostitution, and that all sales of sexual services constitute violence against women.

But much more important than the spin was the Scottish Executive's implicit acceptance of a duty of care towards prostitutes, as well as towards others, such as Leith Links residents, who may be alarmed or offended or inconvenienced by the activities associated with the buying and selling of sex.

Just as very, very few of us approve of drug abuse, most people disapprove of prostitution.

But in dealing with both activities, a policy of harm-reduction, rather than zero tolerance, has been found to be the most effective way of managing problems created for the wider community.

There have been women on the streets of Leith, and Edinburgh, for as long as ships have tied up at Leith docks.

For the hundreds of years they've plied their trade, polite society has shunned prostitutes socially but until relatively recently their activities, although inviting disapproval, were tolerated.

But times have changed... the 24-hour economy, for example, has meant that what used to be the business of the night in Glasgow's warehouse and office area, is now an activity that has to coexist with much longer working hours in businesses that used to close at 5 or 6 o'clock. Employees are now much more likely to be annoyed, or alarmed, by the kerb-crawling activities of men looking for sex.

On Leith Links, sexual services are negotiated, bought and sold at night... but the associated activities are still unacceptable to residents. Because of a lack of discretion on the part of kerb-crawlers and inconsiderate behaviour towards residents' sensitivities and rights on the part of some prostitutes, local people have vigorously opposed the former tolerance zone policy being reintroduced.

But perhaps because of the pressure induced by the activity on their doorstep and the detritus found in their gardens and the school playground, they missed the point I was trying to make, firstly in my Bill aimed at managing street prostitution, and then as a member of the Expert Group on the topic set up by the Scottish Executive.

My Bill would have created managed zones, none of which would have been possible in residential areas, such as Leith Links. But that solution has been overtaken by a much better way of managing the problem facing the three big city councils of exercising a duty of care towards prostitutes and to the wider community. Instead of "tolerance", or "management", or "non-harassment" zones, the activity itself will now be managed.

The old law that for centuries has exacted penance from only the seller of sex, usually a woman, will go, to be replaced by one that acknowledges the nuisance or alarm that can be caused by either the buyer or seller. The new law will see equal treatment for both the intrusive kerb-crawler and the inconsiderate seller of sexual services as, on the complaint of a third party, a charge of causing alarm by attempting to purchase or sell sex is followed by a stiff fine.

With such a law in place, there must be a very slim likelihood of working women practising the oldest profession in places where their activities will be easily observed and therefore open to complaint on the part of residents, office workers or what have you. Much more likely, providing they feel relatively secure, they'll ply their trade away from the general public's gaze.

And this is where the local council's duty of care comes in: as well as trying to make the sex trade less dangerous for the women working the streets, the Executive wants local councils to provide support services for this very vulnerable group. Depending on local attitudes, conditions and geography, each big city council, working with police, health authorities, education and housing departments, drug and employment agencies, as well as specialist voluntary organisations like ScotPep, will decide how best to provide these services.

My bet is that they'll try to locate the services where women are working... in a reachable but discreet area with minimum chances of complaint by residents or passers-by against their presence or behaviour. There are still such areas in the docks area in Leith, for example, and in Aberdeen the existing managed area will probably form the basis for any new arrangements made possible by the new law.

Glasgow has a bigger problem because of the many more street prostitutes in the city. Wisely, however, the Executive will leave the city authorities and agencies to work out plans for Glasgow that match the realities of street prostitution in their city. I doubt if the minimal volume of street prostitution in Dundee will be much affected by change in the law.

A few people will wonder at so much effort being directed at an activity that attracts such disapproval, some more will believe that the new law should be aimed at eliminating prostitution. Firstly, ignoring behaviour not approved by society improves nothing for anybody. Secondly, the law could only make prostitution illegal, without necessarily changing any of the reasons for women entering and working in the sex industry.

By charging local agencies with providing the services needed by prostitutes, they'll be able to tap into advice, counselling and employment training as and when they're ready, willing and able to get off the streets and into mainstream employment.

Tolerance zones... who needs them, when you can have this system of managing street prostitution?


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