EDINBURGH’S decades-old policy for licensing saunas and massage parlours has been scrapped after councillors voted to phase out the controversial public entertainment system.
The city’s licensing committee made the decision yesterday after council leaders said they had been put in an increasingly untenable position.
Six saunas currently hold such licences – the same type held by bars and nightclubs – which will be now invalid in 28 days’ time.
Some 13 venues had held licences until a series of suspensions late last year, following a series of police raids.
Saunas will not automatically close and are free to continue unlicensed.
The main benefit to the council is to remove it from accusations it may be implicated in brothel-keeping, which is illegal.
The council has faced several legal challenges in the courts over saunas.
Susan Mooney, head of the communities department at the council, told the licensing committee ahead of the decision yesterday: “From a licensing perspective the council cannot use the licensing system to regulate activity which would otherwise be illegal.”
But Scot-Pep, which represents sex workers in Scotland, said the move had major implications, and vital links with the health service would be lost.
Neil McCulloch, a spokesman for Scot-Pep, said: “Police Scotland and Edinburgh City Council would do well to recall that the saunas were put in place to tackle the HIV/Aids crisis of the 1980s. Complacency on this issue is ill-founded.”
He cited raids on a number of premises in March 2013 as growing evidence of a less tolerant approach, which police chiefs have denied.
He said: “This will further erode the already-shaken trust that women working in these premises have in the police and in the justice system, making women far less likely to feel able to report crimes against them.”
But the council said that it would continue to monitor activities at saunas and that links between sex workers and health services would be kept.
Councillor Gavin Barrie, the city’s licensing convener, said after the decision: “There are no consequences as such. They [saunas] can freely operate unlicensed, we’ll still inspect them, we’ll have our health and safety people in there, so in reality they can keep trading as they were before as long as they keep it to a decent standard, which has always been the case.”
He said saunas had only been raided because police had uncovered evidence of alleged criminality – currently the subject of court action – and there was no move against tolerance.
He said: “People have put it to me that the police raids are suddenly being carried out. The reality was if the police suspected serious criminal activity, they [saunas] could have been raided at any time.
“Once these reports came through, we couldn’t licence [alleged] criminal activity.
“And although it hasn’t been tried in law yet, there certainly seems to be issues that have to be dealt with and they are totally outwith the licensing system.”
He added: “I would hope that Police Scotland would take the opportunity for a pragmatic approach. At the end of the day it’s up to the police, albeit we’d like to think they would do it with the consent of local people and the local council.”
Zero Tolerance, the Edinburgh-based charity which campaigns against the abuse and exploitation of women, welcomed the decision.
It said: “We’ve opposed this policy [of licensing] in recent years, not least because we see it as increasing, and embedding harm, and sanctioning violence against women, not reducing it.”
Police Scotland said it would work with various agencies to protect vulnerable individuals.