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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April, 2003, 12:49 GMT 13:49 UK
'Saving' the street-walkers
By Malcolm Prior
BBC News Online, Berkshire

A prostitute
A rise in prostitution saw Reading police launch its first ever crackdown
Inspector Dave Parker is a man with a calling.

In the tradition of the best missionaries, the officer in charge of Thames Valley Police's first systematic crackdown on prostitution is happy to declare: "We want to try to save their souls."

Indeed, when Operation Embed was first launched in Reading, Berkshire, the talk was of getting the women "onto a virtuous cycle" and offering them the chance to "turn their lives around".

But has all this evangelical zeal actually paid off?

Seven months after the operation's launch, almost 30 women have either been cautioned, prosecuted or are currently going through the court system under the force's 'three strikes and you're out' policy.

Inspector Dave Parker
Inspector Parker: Trying to save souls
Meanwhile, residents living in the target area - Oxford Road - remain dismayed at the number of prostitutes still on the streets.

A campaign, backed by local councillors, to stop the area becoming the town's main red light district has recently got underway.

Protestors claim two brothels and three sex shops are bringing down an area that not so long ago was enjoying the benefits of a multi-million pound regeneration scheme.

The problem of street-walkers hawking their trade in the early hours is one they want to see stamped out - and soon.

Operation Embed: the results
One woman has received a six month conditional discharge
Three are currently facing charges of "being a common prostitute"
10 women are on their final caution
15 women have received their first caution
But Inspector Parker knows it is a battle that will not be won overnight and not without a determined approach.

Hand-in-hand with the rise in the number of prostitutes has been the problem of crack cocaine.

The Thames Valley Police area was recently named by the Home Office as one of 37 in the country with a significant crack cocaine problem.

Reading's proximity to London and Heathrow and the growth of its 'inner-city' areas have seen the drug sweep into the town.

'Hooked on crack'

Inspector Parker recognises that to get the women off the street you have to get them off the drug.

In the past year 34 foreign suppliers have been deported and scores of crack-houses across Reading have been closed down.

Inspector Parker said: "It's a phenomenon that has hit across the country.

"Half of the prostitutes are hooked on crack."

But he added: "The other half come from the bail hostels.

You can earn 100 for lying on your back for a couple of hours. There's not that many jobs where you can earn that kind of money.
Inspector Dave Parker
"Some are doing it for the drugs, the others because they have always been doing it."

Acknowledging the problems of repeat offending and drugs, police officers work closely with drugs councillors, education officials and social workers from Reading Borough Council.

Both the local authority and the police are also members of the Safer Reading Campaign.

Reading's lead councillor for community action Viki Lloyd, who lives on Oxford Road itself, said: "It's important to tackle the root of the problem.

"I am not passing any judgement on prostitution. It's what makes women go out and do that sort of work that is the issue.

Oxford Road, Reading
Residents in Oxford Road fear the area will become a red light district
"There has to be intervention. There's no point in arresting people and sending them to prison only for them to be back on the streets in six months or two years repeating the same behaviour."

But moves to break the "vicious cycle" have not always proved successful.

Ten women are on their final caution after being pulled in by the police time and time again.

"I wish the girls would take the advice from our partners and change their lifestyles," said Inspector Parker.

Safer Reading Campaign logo
Various organisations are working together to make Reading safe
But he concedes: "You can earn 100 for lying on your back for a couple of hours.

"There's not that many jobs where you can earn that kind of money."

But where the high-profile operation has been most successful has been with the 'clients' themselves.

Twelve letters have been sent out to people caught kerb-crawling in the Oxford Road area as part of the press-friendly campaign, which has also seen the prostitutes 'named and shamed'.

'Worried wives'

"It's a matter of trying to frighten the kerb-crawlers.

"We have sent out 12 letters to kerb-crawlers. That's had an effect.

"We get phone calls from worried wives and partners saying there must be a mistake, that their marriages are happy. We have had no repeat offenders," explained Inspector Parker.

He is confident that the prostitutes can be put on the path to redemption.

But, as with all 'religious' enterprises, Inspector Parker's talk of salvation is tempered with a strong will: "I want the problem solved once and for all."

Drugs lead to prostitution boom
09 Apr 03  |  Bristol/Somerset

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