SCOTLAND'S most powerful local authority yesterday led calls for a zero tolerance approach to prostitution with the launch of a campaign to criminalise the purchase of sex.
The "End Prostitution Now" campaign, spearheaded by Glasgow City Council, aims to put the focus firmly on those who create the demand by buying sex but who have not been in the spotlight in the past.
Designed to create "no hiding place for the pimps, punters and brothel keepers", the campaign is lobbying the Scottish Government for amendments to proposed and existing legislation which will create a range of offences designed to target the purchase of sex.
However, support groups who provide advice and support to sex workers have warned that if implemented, the new legislation will drive prostitution underground and make women more vulnerable.
Led by Councillor James Coleman, the campaign is based on a law introduced in Sweden which made purchasing – or attempting to purchase – sexual services a criminal offence, punishable by a fine or imprisonment.
West Renfrewshire MSP Trish Godman has pledged her support to the campaign by proposing legislative amendments in the Scottish Parliament. Support has also been building among other MSPs, councillors, unions and faith groups, the council said.
Mr Coleman said prostitution was an "appalling form of human exploitation".
He added: "It blights the lives of those involved, their families and the communities where this awful trade takes place.
"Tackling demand is the key to this issue. It is demand which fuels the vicious cycle of sexual exploitation that supplies vulnerable people in to the sex industry."
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The campaign is calling for amendments to be made to the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill, which is currently going through Holyrood.
If included in the legislation, these could allow for premises involved in the "facilitation of the sale of sexual services" to be closed.
A new offence of "facilitation of the sale of sexual services" would be defined using an amendment to the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act.
The Swedish legislation criminalises those who buy sex, but not those providing it. Since its introduction, the Swedish government claims there has been a "dramatic drop" in street prostitution and the number of men buying services.
Mr Coleman added: "The recent kerb crawling legislation went some way to address demand, but it left significant gaps.
"The amendments we propose will extend the reach of the law so there is no hiding place for the pimps, punters and brothel keepers who prey upon others."
Mrs Godman gave her backing to the campaign and said: "We believe these amendments present a simple but devastatingly effective means of challenging demand for prostitution.
"Every shred of evidence indicates that prostitution is inherently harmful. It is incredible that something which breaches an individual's right to dignity, equality, respect and physical and mental well-being has gone unhindered for so long."
However, Ruth Morgan-Thomas from the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project (SCOTPEP), which offers advice and support to sex workers in Edinburgh, said she was "strongly opposed" to the campaign's aims, and claimed the Swedish legislation had left women at risk.
"It has driven sex workers underground and made them more vulnerable by making them open to greater exploitation and it hasn't eradicated prostitution."
Stopping abuse in the sex industry, she added, could not be achieved simply by "stopping the sex industry."
"I think we really do need an approach that accepts this is work, that accepts this is how many, many people earn a living, and that they choose to do that out of a range of jobs that are open to them."
But Ann Hamilton, head of equality and women's services at Glasgow Community & Safety Services, a body set up by the city council and Strathclyde Police, said sex workers were already in danger.
"We're seeing women involved in prostitution who are living in drug dens. We work with voluntary organisations and the health service to ensure we have contacts with those in the industry, and that is an ongoing challenge.
"We need a more radical solution to reduce the number of women being drawn into prostitution, and that is by reducing the demand for it."
A spokesman for Strathclyde Police said: "We must collectively stem the demand for the purchase of sex by engaging with the public to change social attitudes.
"The police service has a role to play in this by enforcing the relevant legislation and contributing to the wider debate."
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "Engaging in sexual activity with anyone without their consent is a serious criminal offence and this applies equally to a person who pays for sex with a person who has been coerced into prostitution.
"We are aware of the calls to criminalise the purchase of sex, which the Scottish Government will consider in the light of the Justice Committee's Stage 1 Report on the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill.
"We will conclude those considerations ahead of Stage 2 of the Bill and announce them in due course."