Time for a return to red light districts?

IT was the "gentrification" of once -rundown parts of Leith that spelled the beginning of the end. For 20 years police and other agencies agreed to turn an official blind eye to sex being sold on the street in one small part of Leith, with few complaints from anyone, except for a minority who opposed on moral grounds.

The decision in 2001 to end that – in the face of opposition from new residents moving into a regenerated old red light area – has been followed by legislation. New laws prohibiting kerb crawling were introduced last year, in an effort to drive the sex trade out of residential areas.

The combined effect, though, has been far from beneficial to anyone.

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Complaints about prostitutes plying their trade near homes in Leith are shooting up again. Police appealed to residents last week to look out for drivers trawling for prostitutes and contact police with their details in an effort to get to grips with the problem.

The streets are also far more dangerous for the sex workers themselves, with reports of attacks almost doubling to 126 last year, compared to the previous 12 months, including 55 assaults and 17 rapes or sexual assaults.

The new vice laws, introduced last October, have outlawed kerb crawling, making it an offence to "loiter" in a vehicle, in a bid to target the men trawling the streets for sex.

This has led to more than 30 arrests, with the number falling sharply after an initial drive in the first ten weeks. Police have also charged 19 women with soliciting offences in Leith.

But that has not been enough to stop complaints about kerb crawlers rising dramatically.

The police promise there will be no let up in their efforts to target the sex trade. Inspector Steven Paul, from Leith police station, says: "The laws have had a significant impact on kerb crawling, although it remains an issue we are committed to tackling."

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However, it is clear that criminalising prostitutes, or those who frequent them, is not halting the trade.

Ruth Morgan Thomas, project manager with the prostitutes support group Scot-Pep, says that, ideally, street prostitutes prefer to work in places that are well lit, covered by CCTV and away from residential areas.

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But now some women are resorting to handing out mobile numbers to potential clients in order to set up illicit meetings, leaving them vulnerable as they meet men in more isolated spots.

Ms Morgan Thomas believes that bringing back the tolerance zone is the best solution.

"Scot-Pep has consistently called for the reintroduction of the managed area previously operated in Edinburgh," she explained.

"If you value these women as members of our society, we have a responsibility to ensure they are protected.

"A managed area creates a safer environment where women can work together and protect one another."

As well as returning to Leith in larger numbers in recent months, the street workers have been plying their trade in new areas, including Craigentinny and Castle Terrace.

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Ms Morgan Thomas said: "We keep asking the women not to work in residential areas – we realise it has an impact on a community. At the same time, though, the situations that lead the women to be there are often out of their control. About 95 per cent of them are drug addicts, and a significant number have alcohol issues, along with homeless and mental health problems."

A managed area for prostitutes would improve personal safety, she says, as well as enable the establishment of a drop-in service to help women access medical, education and employment services.

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MSP Margo MacDonald backs the idea of bringing back a managed zone for prostitutes within Edinburgh.

She says: "The idea is that street prostitution is managed for both prostitutes and the wider community.

"We have had one before. Every so often there would be a bit of a wrinkle or problem that needed to be smoothed out, but it looked out for the safety and wellbeing of people affected by the sex trade.

"It was proven that this could work. There were complaints, but those could be overcome."

Despite the potential difficulties in agreeing a suitable area, probably on an industrial estate away from homes, the independent Lothians MSP believes re-establishing a tolerance zone is the only sensible answer.

"I would like to see a duty of care exercised towards prostitutes. I would like to see the general public not being alarmed or offended by people trying to sell sex," she says.

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"I would want to know that the area was acceptable to the support agencies who work with the people on the streets to give them advice on diseases and health in general, drugs and coming off the game.

"What you have got to do is make sure the support is in place. You can only do that if you know where they are."

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