Members of the Edinburgh licensing committee were handed claims that saunas and massage parlours are actually illegal brothels and that the authorities turn a blind eye to the sex trade.
Licences are usually renewed every three years but 12 of the 15 premises were hauled before the committee yesterday because the challenge issued was the same across the board.
Main objector Mike Anthony, 59, even claimed councillors on the committee would be allowing a crime to take place should they approve the licences.
He told a packed committee room at the City Chambers: “I accept most of the councillors on this committee are new but councillors have been colluding with brothel keepers to this day.” He went on: “The council and police have reason to believe they are brothels and therefore operating as criminal enterprises.”
However, after taking legal advice members of the committee, led by SNP councillor and retired firefighter Gavin Barrie, rejected the claims after the first hearing. He said Mr Anthony – who had referenced online forums and newspaper cuttings – had failed to supply any first-hand evidence.
Councillor Barrie said: “The committee is not convinced there is sufficient evidence not to renew the licences. There is no evidence here, you just gave us a few websites to look at.” Prior to the decision lawyer Alistair Macdonald, representing Iain and Charles Haig, owners of Scorpio Leisure on Albion Road, suggested the objections against his client were of a personal nature and not concerning the way the business is run. He added: “I would suggest this objection is vexatious and not in bona fide good faith. You have heard there are no objections from the police.”
After the first premises was approved, owners and lawyers representing saunas went on to argue that there were no viable objections from police or council licensing officials.
Brothelkeeping remains illegal but Edinburgh saunas and massage parlours operate with a Public Entertainment Licence. The system operated involves the authorities “turning a blind eye” according to critics.
Carol’s Sauna, on Easter Road, faced a second objection from local resident Lauren Fox, who reiterated suggestions that saunas do operate sex for sale. She told the committee: “Not only do brothels operate as saunas but there are details of services offered and industry prices. There is an expanded sex industry in Edinburgh and it’s a question of where it is going to stop.”
Among the applications heard was one from a young man in his mid-20s who was taking over running a New Town sauna from his father.
Daniel Donoghue was approved as licence holder for the Gentlemen’s Club on Comely Bank Place. He said: “The premises is my father’s and I’m simply taking over. With regards to the objections I’d simply reiterate the previous comments.”
Ten of the 12 were approved with two continued for further hearing due to police investigations unrelated to the objections. After two licences had been renewed Mr Anthony left the City Chambers in protest, claiming he was “observing a crime in progress” and told police present that he would issue a complaint against them.
George Lewis, co-chairman of the sex support group Scot-Pep, backed the current set up. “In general terms, we have always been supportive of the council’s policy. It’s been in place for 20-odd years and it has had the desired effect in terms of reduction in HIV and reduction in violence,” he said.
However, Jan Macleod, Senior Development Officer at the Women’s Support Project, said the suggestion there is no evidence of criminality was “ridiculous, given that the punters regularly discuss what is available in the Edinburgh sauna brothels.”
By Jan Macleod, Senior Development Officer at the Women’s Support Project
We believe that prostitution stems from gender inequality – we cannot claim to live in a free and equal Scotland so long as some of our citizens are available for exploitation. Turning a blind eye to brothels is not going to improve equality, and simply sends the message that those already involved in the sex industry are somehow not important.
Our experience tells us that there are close links between childhood sexual abuse, domestic abuse, sexual violence, poverty, and entry into the sex industry. Although of course there are a few exceptions, the vast majority of women enter prostitution through a distinct lack of choice. It is the men who buy sex who are exercising free choice. We want to challenge the sex industry whilst supporting those women (and men) who are involved.
Our view of prostitution is that it is part of a spectrum of commercial sexual exploitation, and that it is inherently harmful to those involved.