delve a little deeper....
Criminalisation by the back door
It was announced this month that Redbridge Council are seeking to criminalise sex workers by introducing a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) to the borough which will allow police officers to issue £100 fines to those attempting to purchase sex.
This move comes after several years of debate and research into the issue of areas of Redbridge residents complaining about sex workers in certain areas of the borough, Ilford road being one of them.
A PSPO is designed to allow local authorities to criminalise non-criminal behaviours, such as creating alcohol free zones, or more sinisterly to remove the ‘problem’ of homeless people such as banning sleeping rough or begging in certain areas.
Liberty, a movement that campaigns to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of people states on their website that they oppose PSPO’s because they are too widely drawn, with vague definitions of what can be criminalised, and carry disproportionately punitive sanctions.
The Guardian has also written about the subject of PSPOs and how they make predefined activities within certain areas prosecutable.
In November 2016 Redbridge Council produced a report following investigation into prostitution called Routes out of Prostitution Scrutiny Working Group, led by Redbridge Councillors with organisations such as the police and sex work outreach groups including Open Doors, but less encouragingly Rachel Moran’s SPACE International.
Moran’s views on sex work have been widely criticised by sex workers and her personal account of her own sex work is believed to have been fabricated. Moran supports the Nordic model (sometimes know as the Swedish model) which criminalises clients and is not what the majority of sex workers want. I wrote about why the Nordic Model doesn’t work here and the English Prostitutes Collective also wrote about the problems of the Swedish law here. Maggie McNeil wrote about Rachel Moran here.
In addition to Moran Helen Easton, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, London South Bank University and Roger Matthews were also consulted, both co wrote ‘Exiting Prostitution - A Study in Female Desistance’ with Julie Bindel in 2014 who has horrific views on sex work.
Also assisting with the investigation was Helen Johnson, who along with Easton and Matthews are part of the Stand Against Sexual Exploitation network, an organisation very much in favour of the Nordic Model.
With such people who are openly opposed to any kind of legislation in favour of safer sex work the investigation into what would work best for the sex workers of Redbridge was always going to be about criminalising clients and ending demand.
The report does make clear that the welfare of the women is important and when discussing various models of sex work law disregards the ‘American model’ as it penalises women.
Unfortunately, the report also states:
The “Nordic” model first implemented by Sweden in 1999 is the remaining regime type and represents a growing trend in terms of international acceptance with France and Northern Ireland now joining with Norway in passing legislation. This would make the purchase of sex illegal but would decriminalise the sale of sexual services. Although there are some countervailing arguments this would be the best option for the Council to pursue by encouraging the flexible use of the existing law.
The draft recommendations go on to say:
The Working Group calls for the Nordic model, or the sex buyer law, to be enacted. Until this becomes law, agencies are urged to use existing legal powers and pathways to reduce demand and to provide support to women involved in prostitution.
The assumption that the Nordic model will become law shows a level of either arrogance or the group has been misled by the people it has consulted with, which is hardly surprising.
There is no mention in the report that World Health Organisation (WHO), Amnesty International, UNAIDS and the Lancet who are all opposed to criminalising any aspect of sex work. Who have stated that “All countries should work toward decriminalisation of sex work.”
There appears to have been no consultation with sex work groups such as The English Collective of Prostitutes or SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement) or the International Union for Sex Workers all who are opposed to criminalising sex workers and against the Nordic model.
The simple summary is that there are already laws that protect people from violence, abuse, rape, slavery and non-consensual trafficking.
Again, the report states as part of its draft recommendations;
The main area of contention in policy terms lies between complete decriminalisation and the adoption of the “Nordic Model” or “Sex Buyer Law” which would criminalise the purchase of sex but not soliciting. Evidence is contradictory and contested with sincerely held views on both sides particularly in terms of safety for the women involved, the involvement of organised crime and the extent of trafficking. There is, however, a very broadly based consensus that women involved in prostitution should be de-criminalised and should be regarded as victims rather than perpetrators.
Yet again, criminalising clients of sex workers is considered the way to go and the wider issues that that brings to sex workers, especially those who operate on the streets has been ignored. Simply, criminalising men who pay for sex means sex workers means less clients which leads to women having to make riskier choices such as offering unprotected sex or services they do not want to do to make ends meet, going with men they are concerned might be violent and soliciting in dark, deserted places which increase the risk of attack and being unable to call for help if needs be.
How ever much a group bangs on about not criminalising sex workers and that it wants women to be safe, but wants a Nordic style law in place has not understood the potential risks that criminalising clients brings.
There is also a lot in the report about the high numbers of Romanian sex workers on the street and concludes that organised crime and modern slavery go hand in hand with this. There doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence that that is the case.
Leader of the council, councillor Jas Athwal said that Redbridge is hoping to use PSPO fines to eradicate or at least reduce the “prostitute problem”.
Another councillor Khayer Chowdhury, vice-chairman of external scrutiny panel is quoted in the Ilford recorder as saying: “I call on residents to work with us and the police to help us keep Ilford safe and clean, and also send a strong message to those who commit crime - we will show total zero tolerance to your activities and we will relentlessly pursue you and lock you up if you come to Ilford and commit crimes.”
I think these two quotes sum up the attitudes to sex workers nicely…
Whilst the report and other documents I have read pertaining to this go to great lengths to state they want to help and support the women involved there is evidence to suggest the real issue is that local residents find sex work icky and they don’t want to see it in their area.
The local police have also been going to great lengths closing brothels in the borough, so they clearly don’t much like indoor sex either. The Ilford Recorder reported one brothel a week is closed down in Redbridge and in a 16 month period during 2015-2016, 50 brothels were closed in the borough.
If a brothel is closed down does someone magically pay the rent and bills and put food on the table for those who worked in them? No, these women will either move to new premises or end up having to work on the street.
In April 2017 in a Redbridge Cabinet meeting it was reported that
The proposed Strategy continued to address the issue of on-street prostitution in the Borough’s hotspot location but widened the focus of the work to include off-street prostitution and all related activity.
In Redbridge Prostitution Strategy 2017- 2021 - A strategy for prevention, exit and enforcement drafted in March of last year it states:
Traditionally within Redbridge and elsewhere, prostitution related enforcement has been directed largely toward the women involved. Although the Borough did take this approach historically it has proved an ineffective way to reduce prostitution and its related effect on residents.
Following the work of the Routes Out of Prostitution Scrutiny Working Group, Cabinet have agreed that the focus of enforcement activity should shift towards those purchasing sexual services in the hope that this will reduce demand.
It can be very difficult to prove the offences listed above, therefore a significant amount of enforcement activity is now related to ‘Achilles heel ‘offences in order to disrupt prostitution related activity within the Borough. It is hoped that this approach will disrupt both the on and off street market.
It might appear positive that the approach is shifting from those selling sex to those purchasing sex, but in reality, disrupting demand has an impact on those selling. By including off-street sex workers it is clear the problem Redbridge Council has is with prostitution, not just the anti-social behaviours that goes with on street sex work.
The reasons that ending demand (if such a thing were possible) does not work and is offensive to many sex workers as it considers that all clients are violent rapists and that sex workers do not make their own choices about doing sex work and how they do it. A common discourse is that no woman could possibly want to do sex work, especially on the street. This may be the case for some individuals, but the wider issue is really about poverty. Making sex work harder for women forces them into further desperation.
Zahra Wynne summed up ‘End Demand’ in the UK Huff Post in April 2016;
The problem with End Demand is that it wrongly assumes that all sex workers are exploited and abused, and forced into their profession. It also makes great mention of underage girls and does not give much regard to consenting, adult workers. Essentially, they equate all sex work with human trafficking, which is an entirely different and abhorrent issue. The idea that sex work is inherently exploitative does not sit well with both sex workers and choice feminists - those who have chosen to undertake sex work are tired of being rendered voiceless victims, and do not feel that they should be equated with victims of sex trafficking, who of course need protection.
Some of the measures already undertaken in Redbridge seem to be working though, The Ilford Recorder sent out a reporter in October 2017 to accompany police officers patrolling in the Ilford Lane area. The headline was ‘Where are all the girls?’
The article doesn’t answer that question, but probably to other areas and into the brothels that keep getting closed down, but the police appear pleased with their work. One police officer revealing “There are girls that are not coming back, and if they do we give them a community protection notice (CPN) and then if that does not work we arrest them”.
So much for the strategy of not targeting the women.
Of course, much of the discussion around sex work in Redbridge (and other places) is simply that local residents don’t like it and have complained of groups of men hanging about, used condoms and other litter and women have complained they are harassed and catcalled, particularly in the Ilford Lane area.
The real giveaway about the attitudes is the public consultation about bringing in the PSPO I mentioned at the start of this. The way to sneak through the Nordic Model…
As part of the council’s strategy a PSPO is being sought and to do that consultation is required and evidence gathered to justify the PSPO.
The Prostitution PSPO is presented as a way to reduce the anti-social behaviour around sex work in Redbridge such as about the associated noise, sex litter and the widespread use of stickers on street furniture.
The introduction to the public consultation survey states that concerns have been raised by residents and elsewhere regarding prostitution.
The proposed measures in the PSPO are:
· No person shall be verbally abusive to any person or behave in a way which causes or is likely to cause harassment alarm or distress to another person.
· No person shall urinate, defecate, spit or leave litter in a public place. This includes the doorway or alcove of any premises to which the public has access.
· No persons shall gather in groups of two or more whilst engaging in nuisance or criminal behaviour. This will not apply to persons waiting for a scheduled bus at a designated bus stop unless they are engaging in nuisance or criminal behaviour.
· No person shall post stickers which advertise prostitution’
· No person shall attempt to buy sexual services from another person
There is no mention of the support of sex workers, exit strategies for those who want to leave sex work, investigations into coerced human trafficking or forced sex work. Nothing about the importance of keeping the women who work on the street safe or the complications around the criminalising of sex workers and/or their clients.
In fact, Councillor Sheila Bain, Cabinet Member for Civic Pride, said; "We want our residents to feel safe and secure when they’re going about their daily lives. We can’t allow the issue of street prostitution to go unchallenged and that is why we’re asking residents and businesses across the borough if they would like us to introduce a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) to help us protect them."
So, there is it. It is all about the residents and keeping them safe, protecting them; nothing about the safety of sex workers. Nothing about the women who face being forced to work in less safe areas and make faster decisions about which clients they should go with. Nothing about the fact that these measures will make women less likely to contact the police if they have been attacked, robbed or raped.
The way the PSPO has been worded is designed to horrify people, of course we don’t want people to be able to do these things on our streets. It’s a natural reaction from almost anyone, No one wants people defecating in the street or to be the subject of harassment.
The wording of this PSPO is evocative and does not address the complex causes of street-based prostitution. In contrast to the existing criminal law surrounding soliciting, PSPOs can only lead to fines, and are therefore likely to draw vulnerable women into the criminal justice system and a cycle of debt.
These measures are also an attack on homeless people of course and will be used to harass and fine them too.
The questions continue in this manner the first one being:
Do you support the introduction of a PSPO to ensure that no person shall be verbally abusive to any person or behave in a way which causes or is likely to cause harassment alarm or distress to another person?
The responses (to all the questions) are yes, no or not sure.
How many people are going to respond no to that question?! This has nothing to do with sex work or the clients of sex workers and everything to do with arseholes.
The next question is on a similar vein, asking whether they support a PSPO to deter people from urinating, defecating, spitting or leaving litter in a public place? Again the answer most people would choose would be yes.
The third question asks:
Do you support the introduction of a PSPO to deter people from gathering in groups of two or more whilst engaging in nuisance or criminal behaviour?
Street workers often work in small groups for safety and support. It’s important to have someone looking out for you if you are going to get into a stranger’s car or go to a quiet deserted area to service a client. Having someone know where you are is essential. Potentially this part of the PSPO would force women to work individually. Of course most people reading this would agree that they think that this should be supported.
The forth question asks:
Do you support the introduction of a PSPO to deter people from posting stickers which advertise prostitution?
Seriously? Do the police really not have anything better to do? This is a direct attack on those who rely on these methods to find clients. Those who may not have or afford internet access or advertising. These measures are NOT about supporting women who work on the street. It is about criminalising them.
The fifth question asks:
Do you support the introduction of a PSPO to allow police and council enforcement officers to fine those who are seeking to purchase sex and/or commit any prostitution related anti-social behaviour in public spaces throughout the borough?
If this PSPO is enforced, the police will be able to fine and possibly arrest sex workers who operate in public and this will also cover anything that the police might deem as anti-social. Again, these measures are not about the safety of sex workers, it is about criminalising them.
This survey will produce the results Redbridge council want. It is horribly weighted and a prejudiced attack against the most vulnerable in society. They will be able to say the public support the PSPO and it will happen. Further to this Redbridge council are hoping that these measures will be extended across London.
This backdoor to introducing the Nordic Model is worrying. It is starting with women who work on the street who are much less likely to have a voice to protest or stand up for themselves. Already Redbridge is targeting brothels which is one of the safest ways for women to work, how long until it moves it independent sex workers sharing a flat or an escort letting out her room whilst she is not working- both technically brothels in the eyes of the law.
Call to action
Complete the survey answering NO to all the questions, if you can, complete the boxes as to why you are opposed to this measure.
You do not have to live in Redbridge or even London or the UK to complete it. They do not ask for any details at all so it is totally anonymous.
The deadline is Sunday 11th March.
Here are some people at Redbridge Council you can write to.
Councillor Sheila Bain firstname.lastname@example.org
Leader of the council, councillor Jas Athwal email@example.com
Other members of the working group are: Councillor Emma Best, Councillor Gwyneth Deakins, Councillor Zulfiqar Hussain. Councillor Taifur Rashid, Councillor Tom Sharpe. and Councillor Neil Zammett (Chair)
Councillor Khayer Chowdhury is vice-chairman of external scrutiny panel.
All email address are firstname.lastname@example.org
The postal address is
C/O Town Hall
128-142 High Road