Changes to the laws on prostitution that were intended to make life safer for women sex workers have actually made matters worse.

The Policing and Crime Act 2009 seemed like a last-ditch attempt by a failing Labour government to take a hard moral line on crime and disorder. But while the Home Office claimed the act would increase public safety, amendments to the laws on prostitution have made life more dangerous than ever for sex workers. And now, as if on cue, three women working as prostitutes have been murdered.

By tightening the regulations on brothels, the act makes it virtually impossible for prostitutes and dominatrices to operate together inside without risking breaking the law. Under clause 21, relating to closure orders, the police are given power to raid any premises:

  • where they suspect sex workers ‘controlled for gain’ are working;
  • which they suspect constitute an unlicensed brothel (defined by law as two or more sex workers trading together), or
  • where they believe there is drug use or where they have received complaints of anti-social behaviour (which can even be the act of sex work itself).

One aim of amending the brothel closure laws was to tackle the highly emotive matter of sex trafficking. Under clause 14, the act makes it an offence to pay for sexual services ‘of a prostitute subjected to force’. But if the act really wanted to deal with trafficking, then why not define victims of trafficking as ‘coerced’ or quite simply, ‘trafficked’, in line with the UN Palermo protocol?

Instead, what the government failed to see was the potential correlation between cracking down on brothels and kicking the most vulnerable sex workers, trafficked or otherwise, to the kerb.

Defendants of the Policing and Crime Act will claim that clause 17, relating to engagement and support orders, is proof that the act genuinely tries to help the most vulnerable. As an alternative to being fined for soliciting clients, clause 17 gives prostitutes the option of attending three meetings to discuss the circumstances of their sex-working. That they can face imprisonment if they break these terms only highlights how unsympathetic and myopic the government’s approach actually is. Street workers’ lives are chaotic at best, frequently making such attendance schedules untenable. They also tend to be understandably cynical of ‘interference’ from authorities that do little to help them the rest of the time.

There may not be a direct connection between the act coming into force and the murders of Suzanne Blamires, Shelley Armitage and Susan Rushworth. First, the law hadn’t been in place long enough for that to be true: certainly, the fact that Rushworth had been missing since last June would rule this out. Second, there has been no evidence released so far to suggest that these women had ever worked in, much less been expelled from, brothels.

But what the murders highlight is the vulnerability of street-working prostitutes. Relate this back to the crackdown on brothels under clause 21 and you begin to see the problem. At least in a brothel people can hear you scream. Girls on the street may try to look out for one another, but when your friend gets into a client’s car, how can you truly keep an eye on her?

Combine this with increased vulnerability to drugs, plus the added onus of social stigma, and the street is the not the place any right-thinking government should be driving anyone near.

So while a referendum on legalising prostitution is hardly going to be on the Lib-Con coalition’s ‘to do’ list, what should be on it is an amendment of the brothel closure laws, so that more women (and I say women because we know most sex workers are female) are not made even more vulnerable. This isn’t about sanctifying prostitution – it’s about sanctifying safety, harm reduction and human rights. Unless the current law is rethought – and fast – Bradford, now the new Ipswich, may soon be replaced with the new somewhere else.

Nichi Hodgson is editorial assistant on the Gazette/sections magazines publishing team