There are often times when, as an MP, I find that in representing some of my constituents, I inadvertently come into conflict with the interests of others. I found myself in such a position back in January of this year, when the government announced plans to decriminalise small brothels.
Currently, brothels are defined as places where more than one woman operates as a prostitute. This unintentionally encourages women to work alone to avoid breaking the law, leaving them more vulnerable to dangerous clients. In order to tackle this problem, the Home Office has proposed a change in the definition of brothel by permitting two prostitutes and a maid or receptionist to work together in residential or other premises in what would become a legal operation. To complement this new policy would be tougher measures to tackle all forms of commercial sexual exploitation, stronger enforcement of the law against pimps and others who control the sex industry, and an increase in support services to help women get out of prostitution.
Nobody could object to the government’s laudable aim of increasing the personal safety of women working in the sex industry, and I agree that we should not tolerate any forms of sexual exploitation. In the months since the release of the Home Office proposals, however, I have continued to receive many letters from ordinary constituents who oppose the government’s plans, and whose arguments have persuaded me that I cannot support an unproven theory that has the potential to have such a negative impact on the lives of Westminster residents. Chief Inspector Gravett of the Metropolitan Police maintains that ‘the notion that there is safety in numbers is false,’ and others feel that the government’s consultation exercise has so far been deeply flawed.
Constituents have uncovered three main problems with the government’s proposals. Firstly, the change in definition would almost certainly increase the number of brothels in residential areas. Despite Home Office reassurances that small scale operations do not disrupt neighbours, I have heard from residents who have lived next to illegal brothels who tell me that the reality is different. They report being regularly disturbed, with customers knocking on the wrong doors, drug dealers haunting communal areas and carders and pimps threatening those who try to take action. I believe it is unacceptable to condone this type of business in areas where people are trying to bring up children.
Secondly, if small brothels were legalised, residents could only object to them as a contravention of planning regulations ? by not having permission to run a business in a residential area, for instance. This would simultaneously make police impotent and councils overburdened with no extra resources. Such objections might not succeed in closing down these operations anyway. Gordon Chard, Director of Planning at Westminster City Council, has pointed out that large brothels could be created without contravening the revised definition, for example by establishing several small brothels in close proximity to one another.
Finally, there is no proof that these new measures will reduce pimping, increase prostitute safety or remove sex workers from the streets. There will always be a market for street prostitutes to exploit for the simple commercial reason that the ‘service’ can be taken directly to the consumer. Furthermore, decriminalisation would send out very mixed messages. Whilst the state believes it wrong to tax ‘immoral’ earnings or to condone the confinement of brothels to commercial zones, it would be legal to establish a sex business where ordinary people live and raise their families.
The Home Office plans are rushed, poorly thought-through and logically flawed. It is my duty to try to represent all those who work and live in my constituency, but in this case I do not believe I can support the rights and interests of those working in the sex industry over the rights of ordinary residents.