AN end to the controversial policy of licensing sex-for-sale saunas has been signalled by the City of Edinburgh council.
The local authority is considering scrapping the decades-old system of granting public entertainment licences to saunas and massage parlours.
But despite saunas no longer being officially sanctioned, they are still expected to be tolerated, unofficially.
In a report, senior directors said the current policy carried a “reputational and financial risk”. The policy was also being operated in a “contentious climate” after police raids earlier this year. Twelve people were arrested in connection with brothel-keeping and living off immoral earnings.
New measures would mean that, from February, premises would be allowed to operate without a licence. This would end a policy drawn up in the 1980s to regulate the sex trade to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids. Health workers would still visit premises, while council staff would inspect them to ensure they met health and safety standards.
Council sources have denied that unlicensed saunas would slip under the radar or drive workers on to the streets. They say existing premises are well established and already monitored, while it is intended any new saunas would be identified when they applied for mandatory planning permission.
Mark Turley, a senior council director, wrote in a report to councillors: “The current policy is operating in a contentious climate which has arisen due to multiple legal challenges to both the granting and refusal of a number of licences.
“If the current policy were to continue, then further legal challenges are likely. This situation carries reputational and financial risk for the council and does not contribute to risk reduction within these premises.”
He added: “The impact of this proposal would be that premises would continue to operate and would be subject to general enforcement activity through trading standard and public health powers … any criminal or illegal activity would be a matter for Police Scotland to address.”
Councillors will be asked on Friday to approve a consultation on the issue, with the public and charities being asked for their views by December. A final decision is planned for January, with saunas and massage parlours no longer licensed from February.
Last month, six of Edinburgh’s 13 saunas were ordered to close following police objections.
The council has recently defended legal action by saunas trying to overturn licence suspensions, and by at least one member of the public who challenged the policy.
A council source said: “We’ve always known the policy of licensing these places was open to challenge and, clearly, in recent months, we’ve now faced that challenge. We can’t spend public money defending an issue we always knew would be difficult to defend. With these new proposals, we will ensure that all premises, though technically unlicensed, will still be visited by health staff and the police will also know where they are.”
Scot-Pep, a charity representing sex workers, has criticised the move.
Spokesman Neil McCulloch said: “We have had these licensing measures here in Edinburgh for so many years now that it is difficult to understand how the new system would work.
“Our concern is always about the people who work in these premises. What is clear, though, is the raids earlier this year and the crackdown by police have made women more afraid to speak to the police than ever.”
Superintendent Matt Richards said: “We are aware of the City of Edinburgh’s proposal, which is intended to go out for consultation.
“The responsibility for licensing certain businesses in Edinburgh is a matter for the council. Police Scotland will continue to inspect all premises granted a licence, and as always we will work actively with our health service, local authority and third sector partners to maximise public safety and harm reduction.
“Any criminal activity detected within these venues will be reported to the appropriate authority.”