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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2006, 16:20 GMT
Managing prostitution in the UK
By Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

As calls increase for measures to protect sex workers, what is the best way to ensure prostitutes can work safely in the UK?

Official estimates suggest about 80,000 people are involved in prostitution in the UK - four out of five of whom are women.

Prostitute
Fears for the safety of prostitutes follows the killing of three in Ipswich

In the past ministers have said they are open-minded to possible changes in the law, such as the creation of "managed tolerance zones", registering prostitutes and licensing brothels. A year on from the publication of an official strategy, proposals for some reforms remain under consideration.

Since 2000, police in Aberdeen have operated a "management zone" for prostitution.

The city's estimated 130 prostitutes are allowed to solicit within the zone, an area a quarter of a mile square which adjoins the harbour.

However, no sexual activity is allowed to take place there.

The area is mainly industrial, so clashes with residents have not arisen, according to Detective Chief Inspector Eric Leslie, crime manager for the Aberdeen division of Grampian Police.

Prostitutes are only allowed to work in the zone from 1700 - except for one street where they cannot start before 2100 - in order to prevent local businesses being affected.

"I wouldn't say the businesses haven't objected, but they have co-operated with us; obviously they have concerns surrounding health and safety issues," Insp Leslie said.

We haven't seen a reduction in robberies or attack in the area as a result of the management zone
Inspector Peter Morrison
Grampian Police

Reactions to the scheme have varied.

Inspector Peter Morrison, also of Grampian Police, admitted that it was "debatable" that the scheme had been a success, adding that this can be "difficult to quantify".

He told BBC Radio Five Live: "The difficulty is that a lot of these girls are leading a chaotic lifestyle and a lot of crime is unreported to us.

"We haven't seen a reduction in robberies or attack in the area as a result of the management zone."

He added that some prostitutes "said they do like the idea of the zone but others have found problems with it".

For example, some complained that the zone created too much competition in a small area.

Similar zones in other cities, or plans for the creation of such areas, have experienced difficulties.

Aberdeen management zone
The success of Aberdeen's management zone is "debatable"

Edinburgh had one of the UK's oldest unofficial tolerance zones, set up in the Leith area of the city in the 1980s, until it was scrapped in 2001.

Redevelopment led to Leith becoming more residential and complaints about the sex workers increased.

The zone was moved to a nearby industrial area but also met local opposition there.

Since the zone was abolished attacks on sex workers have shot up, according to the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project (ScotPep).

The group said violence went up from 11 attacks in 2001 to 111 in 2003.

Prostitution strategy

In January 2006, the Home Office published a new prostitution strategy. It said there would be no "managed prostitution zones" - instead a plan to prevent young women falling into the business - and strategies to get them out of it.

We are not in support of toleration or management zones because we think the government should decriminalise prostitution
Sara Walker
English Collective of Prostitutes

Eleven months on from the strategy's publication, amid the Suffolk prostitutes murder inquiry, the government confirmed a proposal to allow mini-brothels remained "under active consideration".

Allowing three women to work together in a private premises was proposed as a means of tackling street prostitution while, at the same time, helping women still on the game to better protect each other.

This measure would also in theory be linked to more work on helping women leave prostitution behind. Managed zones, said ministers, would be effectively turning a blind eye to the problem.

And despite some groups believing tolerance zones are effective, the English Collective of Prostitutes, which represents sex workers, is also opposed to them.

Sara Walker, a spokeswoman for the group, told BBC News: "We are not in support of toleration or management zones because we think the government should decriminalise prostitution.

"With such zones we are there on tolerance, not on the basis of our right to work."

Ms Walker, who cited New Zealand as an example of a country that had improved the rights of prostitutes by decriminalising the practice, said such managed areas create a "two-tier" system whereby women can work within the zone but are criminalised outside of it.

She also pointed out that the legitimate working spaces are in run-down parts of cities, creating "ghettos" that many women do not want to work in.

"Many want to keep their anonymity and come out of prostitution when they are ready. That is more difficult in managed zones because they are run by the police and council," she said.


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