Prostitution steps out of the shadows

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LIKE many young mothers, Bridget Cairns feels guilty about working nights and leaving her two children with a babysitter. She calls a cheery goodbye, bites her lip, then closes the door on them and the safe, cosseted world they inhabit.

Only her husband Tom and a handful of very close friends know what happens next. Bridget leaves her Edinburgh home and drives two and a half hours to work as a prostitute in Scotland’s only tolerance zone in Aberdeen. There, she has sex with up to ten men a night, at 30 a time.

Bridget, 32, used to work in the unofficial tolerance zone in Edinburgh but when it was abandoned in November 2001, she began travelling to Aberdeen, as she did not feel safe working outside a designated area.

In Aberdeen, the women are given strict guidelines, such as when they can congregate and how many people are permitted in the area. The re-introduction of a zone in Edinburgh would make a world of difference to Bridget and her family, she insists. She would be a lot better-off because of the substantial reduction in travel costs, and could work fewer hours and spend more time with her son and daughter.

Margo MacDonald is convinced the Edinburgh tolerance zone must come back. She is alarmed by the near-threefold increase in attacks in 2002, despite a 50 per cent reduction in girls working on the streets since the tolerance zone in Edinburgh area disappeared.

She wants the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation making tolerance zones legal, allowing street prostitutes to ply their trade without fear of arrest. The establishment of a tolerance zone resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of attacks on prostitutes in the red light area around Coburg Street, Leith. The zone was switched to Salamander Street in August 2001 following complaints from residents. The second site also met local opposition and was scrapped within three months.

Margo MacDonald lodged her Prostitute Tolerance Zones (Scotland) Bill a year later. She hopes the parliament’s local government committee will support her bid to give councils the opportunity to establish tolerance zones.

The scheme in Aberdeen is modelled on a system used in the Netherlands, where industrial estates have been set up as safe zones for women working on the streets between 8pm and 3am. The women watch out for each other, taking the registration numbers of clients’ cars and sharing information about abusive punters.

But a similar policy provoked enormous controversy in Edinburgh, as the tolerance zone took shape through the early 1980s as police grappled with growing violence against prostitutes and a spiralling AIDS problem. Around Coburg Street police turned a blind eye to scores of "working women"; they took a practical approach and didn’t treat the women as criminals. The red-light area was clearly defined and more easily-policed, offering a measure of protection to the women.

Critics said the more relaxed approach from the police put an acceptable face on prostitution, arguing that the number of street girls had increased. Yet it was the gradual gentrification of Leith that saw increasing local opposition to the zone.

Despite the move to Salamander Street, the complaints continued and on occasions, placard-waving local protesters took to the streets in an effort to drive away both the girls and the kerb-crawling motorists. They said parts of Leith had become virtual no-go areas for women who found themselves being pestered by male drivers.

Some residents started discussions with solicitors with a view to seeking a judicial review in the courts. Eventually, they won and the tolerance zone was scrapped.

Ruth Morgan Thomas, of Scot-Pep (Scottish Prostitutes Education Project) a support group for women working in Edinburgh’s red-light district, has found her job much more difficult without a tolerance zone - although she admits it is not a catch-all solution.

"Simply having a zone is not enough, but it helps to put everything else in place," she explains. "Women work collectively to spot and report under-age girls, support services can be organised and there will be more police in the area."

Ms Morgan Thomas says that three prostitutes under 16 have been identified since the zone was scrapped, compared to an average of one a year before then.

Ms MacDonald’s bill would allow local authorities to set up and police defined areas. Her warnings that removing a relative safe haven for prostitutes would lead to more attacks on the women seems to have been borne out by the new statistics.

Not everyone agrees with her proposals. The Scottish Police Federation believes zones are not the answer and that making a generally illegal activity legal in a specific area might not be lawful.

Over the next few weeks, MSPs will need to reach a view on whether to put pressure on the Scottish Executive to approve Ms MacDonald’s bill. If the legislation were to have any chances of success in the few remaining months of the current parliament, it would require the Executive’s support. So far, ministers have been lukewarm towards the bill and have refused to give any commitment until it receives a report from the local government committee.

Hugh Henry, the deputy minister for justice, told the committee last week that further research and consultation was needed. He says the zones could lead to an influx of prostitutes and make the law confusing because of uncertainty over the legality of other activities inside the zone, such as drug-dealing and racketeering.

If Ms MacDonald’s bill was approved, councils would not be forced to create zones. While Edinburgh and Aberdeen city councils back tolerance zones, Glasgow City Council is vehemently opposed.

As Glasgow is Scotland’s biggest local authority - and strongly Labour - its views are certain to be a major consideration for the Executive. In a blunt response to the local government committee, the council said that the licensing of brothels as saunas or massage parlours "is an out of sight, out of mind approach ... .there has been little objective research on the impact of tolerance zones and the benefits attributed to the Edinburgh zones do not stand up to scrutiny."

According to Glasgow council officials, cities like Amsterdam and Melbourne which have introduced regulated areas for prostitution have seen a burgeoning in sex industry activity and demands from clients.

In a submission to MSPs, Jim Wallace, the justice minister, said the private bill raised a number of significant issues which needed to be considered in detail before any decision could be taken.

He added: "The introduction of tolerance zones could be seen as a move towards general support for legalising soliciting for the purposes of prostitution."

But Mr Wallace said the Executive would await the outcome of the committee’s consideration of the bill before adopting a stance on it. This view was echoed last week by Mr Henry.

The Executive is also concerned about any legal confusion that the setting up of tolerance zones could cause, as other activities involving drugs or a breach of the peace would still be illegal in the area.

Ms MacDonald says: "Some people argue that tolerance zones would exacerbate the problem of prostitution, encourages more women to become prostitutes or make them remain in prostitution longer. The indications are to the contrary.

"Councils could agree to tolerance zones if it can be proved they are promoting the general well-being of their areas by acting for the well-being of prostitutes and by tackling crime and introducing better health safeguards."

Supporters say regulated red-light areas would allow the police to built up an intelligence profile on what is happening on the streets. It would deter child-prostitution and help in the fight against drug-related crime. But the age-old profession still faces age-old opposition on moral and ethical grounds.

Ms Morgan Thomas adds: "Attitudes to street prostitution have jumped back two decades over the past couple of years. Edinburgh’s toleration project developed over two decades. At that time, women working in street prostitution were not reporting incidents to the police. They did not have high self-esteem. Taking away the zone in Edinburgh makes them feel that society does not care what happens to them.

"They can’t speak to the police as easily as they could when there was a zone - they fear arrest now. They’re out there on the streets, totally on their own - and most of these women do not have any choice but to work on the streets."

Bridget’s bitterness is clear: "I am 100 per cent behind getting the zones back. At the moment, women are fighting for space in Aberdeen. Women are travelling there from Glasgow, Edinburgh, all over the place, and tension among the women is increasing.

"Society still can’t accept prostitution. In Edinburgh, the residents got their way in the end. But I know many local people used our services. The only way to get rid of prostitution is by eradicating poverty, which can never happen overnight. If zones are banned, women still work. Only they do so in the shadows, and they get hurt more."