Five years on from the tragic deaths of five female sex workers in Ipswich we have seen great progress in the way in which prostitution and associated issues are dealt with across the country. Significantly, in Suffolk, more than 200 sex workers have been helped out of sex work since the ‘Ipswich murders’, with them being provided with appropriate support to deal with the underlying symptoms of their issues, including drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence and homelessness.
This said there is still much more to be done. As the current ACPO lead for Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation my role is to ensure that the policing of this area nationally is directed in the most appropriate way and that the law by which the police work to is fit for purpose.
On-street prostitution has not stopped; individuals, both women and men, continue to be at risk on a daily basis, vulnerable to threat and harm, in order to fund their addictions. Off-street prostitution also continues; often hidden away behind closed doors, but equally at risk to exploitation by criminals and criminal gangs.
Last week’s publication by the Home Office of its Review of Effective Practice in Responding to Prostitution is welcomed by ACPO. The document highlights ways in which policing mixed with multi agency and community support can provide the innovative ways to respond to the issues of prostitution. This same direction is given in the new ACPO strategy and supporting operational guidance for dealing with prostitution & sexual exploitation, published this week. It is my belief that the policing of prostitution will at best only achieve short-term results unless there is effective partnership at the local and strategic level, in order to support victimised individuals and communities with appropriate legislation and enforcement resources.
The strategy therefore promotes a policing approach that keeps in balance the three essential elements of individual and community needs, and the investigation and prosecution of those who exploit and abuse. These three facets must operate simultaneously and be sustainable. I absolutely recognise the responsibility that the police have to enforce the law that is set by the government of the time however, with much of the current prostitution related law being complex and on occasion contradictory, it is vital that the police understand the need for alternative approaches to dealing with the issue.
With the above in mind I would very much welcome a debate about alternative policy approaches that could be taken in this area, which would better equip the service to protect its communities and its individuals. There is a great amount of academic research available, much of which supports the view that an alternative approach is needed. An example would be the decriminalisation and regulation of brothels in Australia and New Zealand, not an answer to all of the related issues but certainly a solution to some. More of those involved in sex work in Australia and New Zealand can now access health services with ease, whilst maintaining more personal security in an emotive area for policing.
There is no perfect solution to dealing with prostitution and sexual exploitation, my ethos is to use evidence based approaches that consider risk, threat and harm to all. An approach like this would help to bridge the gap between tackling neighbourhood nuisance and the exploitation of sex workers by organised criminals and gangs.
ACPO supports the 'International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers', which is held annually on December 17. The day is to remember the men and women who have been lost through violence. The police service is committed to ensuring those in the community who are vulnerable, including sex workers, are protected from harm. We will continue to make every effort to bring to justice those offenders who commit violent crimes against the vulnerable.
Simon Byrne is the Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police and is ACPO lead for prostitution and sexual exploitation.