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BEST PRACTICE - CLEANING UP THE STREETS

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New guidelines urge councils to crack down on prostitution but there's more to the job than forcing women off the s...
New guidelines urge councils to crack down on prostitution but there's more to the job than forcing women off the streets, says Jennifer Sprinks

The launch of the Serious Organised Crime Agency this month is one weapon in the fight against human trafficking and the number of women smuggled into Britain to sell sex.

It's no longer enough to push sex workers into special areas. The Home Office's prostitution strategy, which came out in January, sparked outcry when it ruled out the prospect of managed zones where prostitutes can operate.

The strategy promises tougher enforcement of laws against kerb-crawling, more opportunities for women to leave prostitution and a focus on preventing children being lured into the trade.

But a number of councils believe the Home Office approach fails to address the problem, warning that simply outlawing street sex will do little to stamp out prostitution.

Here are ways some authorities are working with the strategy and incorporating their own ideas to tackle the sex trade:

1 Accept that prostitution exists

Not all councils agree on methodology, but they do manage to see eye-to-eye on the fact the deep-seated social issues tied to prostitution can only be tackled if there is acceptance the problem exists.

Prior to the Home Office strategy, Liverpool City Council was in favour of having a managed prostitution zone, with the aim of moving street prostitution away from residents, by restricting street sex to a specific non-residential area. Meanwhile, in other areas, there would be a zero-tolerance approach. Of crucial concern to the people in Liverpool is the issue of drug-dealing associated with prostitution.

'Unlike the government's criticism that the managed zone would encourage prostitution, we aim to assist working girls out of the industry,' says Flo Clucas (Lib Dem), Liverpool's executive member for social care.

By recognising the reality of the industry and the root causes, Ms Clucas says a more effective long-term solution can be applied. With or without managed zones, the council is still pursuing its programme offering 'working girls' a new lifestyle and the support they need to break their drug addiction.

2 Develop partnerships and establish a shared vision

For Glasgow City Council, once it accepted there was a huge problem, it assessed whether it was a matter for the police or the council. It decided such a task required 'a whole raft of agencies' working together.

Deputy leader Jim Coleman (Lab) says: 'We set up a partnership comprising the voluntary sector, police, council, health bodies and other players.

'The police recommend prostitutes to the health board to give them advice and then an intervention team is sent to help [the women] build up confidence, offer a range of counselling, advice on debt management and provide drug treatment. The aim is to get them out of prostitution and into employment.'

When the council first entered the partnership five years ago, it was faced with little support because of the controversial stance it took towards prostitution.

'We took the view that prostitution was a form of violence against women and that they entered the industry as a means of survival because the majority of these women in Glasgow have drug addiction problems,' Mr Coleman says.

The council runs what is known as the Time Out Centre, where women can go and receive shelter and housing to help them get back into real work. Glasgow has ruled out jail and fines as women often go back on to the streets to pay them.

Mr Coleman says: 'Our approach was controversial at first, but now it can be used as a model for others getting women out of prostitution and back into work.'

This year's statistics are expected to show that the number of street prostitutes arrested has more than halved from 1,060 for 2004-2005 to 413 for the following year.

3 Draft an action plan with measurable goals

In Westminster, there is also an interventionist approach, but the main focus is on kerb-crawlers. The council requires them to sign contracts at the side of the road stipulating that they will not reoffend.

Westminster held a taskforce meeting last June before putting together an action group and drawing up a strategy.

Last month the council ran a pilot, in which it conducted operations with police backing on kerb-crawlers using Sussex Gardens, Paddington.

Instead of arresting the kerb-crawlers, which requires a lot of evidence and paperwork, drivers who are even caught just circling the square are stopped, photographed and asked to sign an acceptable behaviour contract, which orders them not to kerb-crawl again.

Deputy leader Colin Barrow (Con) says: 'Sometimes the kerb-crawlers do not realise they are breaking the law. If they fail to abide by law, they could have their licence taken away or be issued with an ASBO.'

Under the kerb-crawler contract the costs are much lower than carrying out arrests, so more frequent raids can take place. The council managed to secure 20 contracts and two arrests in just four days.

Mr Barrow says it is still too early to assess long-term results, but adds that since last autumn around 20 people have lost their driving licences as a result of the operation. And the council has drafted a top 10 list of prostitutes who risk getting an ASBO. 'They get a precursor to an ASBO and eventually the league table changes because the prostitutes cease to exist in the area,' he says.

4 Stop children being drawn into the sex trade

Nottingham City Council believes stopping children from

entering the sex trade is one of the most important ways of rooting out prostitution.

With the focus being to promote the welfare of children involved in the sex industry, the council views them as victims of abuse, coercion and exploitation, and offers support to discourage them from returning to the streets. Meanwhile, the pimps and kerb-crawlers who prey on them are criminalised. The council won a Department of Health social care award in 2000 for cross-agency working to tackle the sexual exploitation of children.

The multi-agency taskforce worked with a range of partners including the NSPCC, Prostitute Outreach Workers, the drug service, health and education bodies to provide individuals with street-based support to quit prostitution and engage in rehabilitation programmes.

'Something like this cannot be dealt with in isolation,' explains Sue Gregory, service director for children's services and co-chair on the Respect for Nottingham's strategic group on tackling prostitution. 'The work we do aims to pull together partners to work across the [administrative] boundaries, bringing in the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and housing services.'

Nottingham City Council conveyed messages about the dangers of prostitution through schools and engaged with youngsters to find out how and why children were becoming prostitutes. It also set up a drop-in base for vulnerable children in need of general advice or a medical check.

'Together we assess the services and support the children to get them out of the activity,' says Ms Gregory. 'And we target the people who are abusing the children.'

Within the first few years, the project identified 85 girls and 35 boys between the ages of 12 and 19 who had been sexually exploited through involvement in prostitution. Over 85% of these were diverted from entering the criminal justice system, and most have not been seen on the streets again. The number of new cases of child exploitation has also fallen significantly. More than 50 adults were charged and two cautioned with offences ranging from the production of child pornography to rape. Such was the success of Nottingham's initiative, it was used to shape the Home Office and Department of Health guidance on child prostitution and it has since been adopted by police throughout the country.

5 Change the culture

'You have to accept [prostitution] is a complex issue and you are not going to destroy the industry by having a publicity campaign,'

explains Nottingham City Council's Sue Gregory. 'This takes a behavioural change as well as enforcement in order to deal with deep social problems. Our message is that it is not just about dealing with the women in a better sense, it is about changing attitudes.'

Nottingham is one of the very few areas in the UK that operates a change programme for the kerb-crawlers. In the last year, the council's crackdown on prostitution has tackled 238 kerb-crawlers, secured charges against five pimps and has successfully managed to help five women exit prostitution.

The Kerb-Crawling Taskforce has also put 138 men through its Change Programme -offered to first time offenders who are able to pay£200 to attend this course to adjust their behaviour instead of going to court.

A further 31 men are booked onto forthcoming courses. Similar to Westminster's scheme, all the men caught kerb-crawling have signed a contract and to date none have been caught re-offending.

'We aim to challenge the attitudes of the kerb-crawlers towards women and look at how they perceive prostitution, making them aware of the safety issues concerned for the women involved,' explains Ms Gregory.

Find out more

For a copy of the government's prostitution strategy go to: www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/ProstitutionStrategy.pdf

Prostitute Outreach Workers, Nottingham

Tel: 0115 924 9993

Nottingham City Council

Kate Brudenell, press officer: 0115 915 4583

Westminster City Council,

Mike Taggart, Senior media officer: 020 7641 2781

Glasgow City Council,

Jim Coleman, deputy leader: 0141 287 4012

Liverpool City Council,

Sarah Langworthy, press officer: 0151 225 5582

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