RED-LIGHT districts are a step closer to becoming a reality in cities across Scotland as ministers have abandoned their opposition to prostitution tolerance zones.
Sources close to Jack McConnell say the Scottish Executive now has "an open mind" and is no longer ruling out the possibility of allowing prostitutes to sell sex legally on designated streets.
The U-turn clears the way for MSP Margo MacDonald’s Member’s Bill, which would effectively decriminalise soliciting in a controlled area, to be backed in a fresh vote in the Scottish Parliament.
If the Bill is passed, it could see the creation of legal red-light districts in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. None of the cities has an official tolerance zone, although Aberdeen has an unofficial red-light district.
MacDonald’s proposed legislation was heavily defeated in a parliamentary vote in February this year. The Executive said it could not support the Bill because there was no consensus on whether tolerance zones would improve the safety of prostitutes or communities where they work. It added that its main aim was to help women to get out of prostitution.
But it now appears that evidence of rising attacks on prostitutes since Scotland’s first unofficial tolerance zone in Leith, Edinburgh, was scrapped may be changing ministerial minds.
There is also less political pressure on Labour MSPs to resist the zones now the Holyrood election is behind them.
Researchers say the scrapping of Leith’s prostitution tolerance zone has led to a 15-fold increase in attacks on women and has simply driven prostitutes into back streets.
The zone was abolished in 2001 after it was moved to a different part of the city. Following residents’ complaints, the police and council accepted it was not allowed under current legislation.
Edinburgh-based group ScotPEP has found that two or three prostitutes are being attacked a week since the tolerance policy in Edinburgh was scrapped. It says women have been raped, sexually assaulted and beaten, and describes one incident, in which a client tried to run down a prostitute in his car, as attempted murder.
ScotPEP argues that within a zone women can work together to protect themselves, sharing advice about violent clients, taking notes of number plates and reporting missing women.
Yesterday MacDonald, who has introduced a revised Bill, said she had detected a softening in Executive thinking on the issue. She believes police are concerned that it has become more difficult to obtain intelligence on the sex trade since the Leith tolerance zone was scrapped.
She said: "Since the Bill was last debated in parliament, the situation in Edinburgh has greatly deteriorated. There are many more reported violent attacks on women, and residents, particularly around Leith Links, report an intolerable level of nuisance and loss of amenity since the area became one in which soliciting is carried out.
"The residents have organised patrols in an effort to dissuade women from soliciting in their areas."
She added that in Aberdeen, the other city that has run an unofficial tolerance zone, the authorities and agencies dealing with street prostitution would prefer their policies to be underpinned by the law.
Last night she welcomed the softening of the Executive’s position and said she now intends to run an information campaign designed to convince MSPs of the case for legislation ahead of another vote.
"I think the Executive are being more positive now and we are now free of the election so we can look at things more on their merits."
In Leith, public opinion also appears to be shifting. John Cook, chairman of the community council, said residents had been angry at the lack of consultation over where the tolerance zone should be sited.
He added many people locally would now back the MacDonald Bill, as long as residents were consulted and the zone is not in a residential area.
Cook said: "Most people round here recognise there is a need for safe tolerance zones. That’s not to say they agree with prostitution, but there should be areas where there is not much housing with CCTV and where the police can have a wee bit of control over it."
A prostitution working group set up by the Executive is currently examining the case for tolerance zones.
Sandra Hood, the former police officer heading the group, has already said it is unrealistic to eradicate prostitution and that the focus should be on managing it.
However, opinion remains divided among local authorities.
A Glasgow City Council spokesman said: "We’ve said all along that we have never advocated tolerance zones. It’s not our line of thinking at all.
"Our goal is to work towards the elimination of prostitution, not the tolerance of it."
A spokesman for Strathclyde Police added: "We believe in helping women find routes out of prostitution. We will continue to enforce the law if it was broken in this manner."
But a spokesman for Aberdeen City Council said: "The evidence that the council gave to the Executive under the previous administration was broadly in support of Margo’s Bill. It does not indicate that we would apply for a licence ourselves if that was ever an option, but we are supportive of the idea."
Grampian Police, which has operated an unofficial tolerance zone around the harbour area of the city for more than a year, said that it has prostitute liaison officers working with women in the area, looking at health and safety issues as well as gathering intelligence.
Tom Wood, the deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, said that any kind of tolerance zone required a legal framework. "There has to be a legal framework, local authorities have to be protected from litigation," he said.
"We must do nothing which encourages, however tacitly, the sex industry. But we should recognise it has always existed.
"Tolerance zones are better than the alternative because they give a framework, a structure, that reduces the risk of harm to everybody."
HOW THE SEX TRADE IS RUN AROUND THE WORLD
WHILE some countries are trying to crack down on prostitution, other administrations believe it is more sensible to legalise and license ‘the oldest profession’.
In 1999, Cape Town in South Africa decided to publicise its brothels as a tourist attraction.
In Belgium, self-employed prostitutes are legal but brothels are not. The country is proposing to legalise and regulate them, following the lead of its neighbour, the Netherlands, which did so three years ago.
Because Dutch brothel girls are now legitimate workers, they must pay income tax like anyone else, boosting government coffers.
The parliament in Romania is debating similar legislation, and New Zealand recently passed a law to legalise brothels.
In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has raised the prospect of bringing back licensed brothels, once common in Italy. Some of its past efforts to clamp down on street prostitution have had bizarre consequences. When Milan outlawed kerb-crawling in 1998, prostitutes put on running shoes and jogged alongside prospective clients’ cars, negotiating their prices.
In 1999, Sweden outlawed the practice of buying sex, but not selling, so men caught soliciting face up to six months in prison.