Planned amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that would have introduced a programme of ‘compulsory rehab’ for street prostitutes have been dropped in order to get the bill passed quickly. It would have meant that street prostitutes that are regularly caught would be forced into 'treatment'. If they missed three sessions they could be arrested and held for 72 hours before being brought before court.
Whilst this was largely a political move in order to get the bill through without delay (and apparently prevent prison officers from going on strike in the summer), credit must go to the English Collection of Prostitutes and others who campaigned against the offending clause.
For a detailed explanation of the pros and cons of the bill see The Safety First coalition.
Transform was also a supporter of the campaign because compulsory 'treatment' has a very poor efficacy record and the concept of coercion is offensive to the concept of 'treatment' as understood by medical practitioners. The inverted comas are appropriate; when it is coerced, then according the BMA you shouldn't call it 'treatment', which is by definition agreed between patient and doctor and not the result of coercion.
What would help these vulnerable women is first and foremost is an end to the criminalisation of their work and, euqally importantly the appropriate legal regulation and controlled availability (either on prescription or at affordable prices) of the drugs to which many, indeed most, are dependent.
Improved support from other agencies outside the criminal justice system would be far more helpful than new legislation. The example of the way Ipswich has dealt with its street prostitutes since the Steve Wright murders in 2006 shows this to be a much more viable way to help get women out of prostitution. After five women were killed by Steve Wright, a multi-agency group including police, drug workers and community support staff was given money in order to get the sex workers off the street (BBC report, Guardian report)
The Ipswich partnership produced a draft strategy aimed at helping such women.
It acknowledges that any attempt to get the sex workers into treatment for drug use should not be coercive. It has been claimed that of the estimated 30 or so women who were working at the time of the murders, only two are still on the streets. Of the 30, 16 are in daily communication with drugs workers and seven more are in less regular contact (see here). Low threshold availability of treatment, including maintenance prescribing where appropriate, is the most effective way of bringing these vulnerable women into contact with services.
What has been highlighted in the debate surrounding both the Ipswich murders and the Criminal Justice Bill is something that Transform and others have been saying for a long time - the prohibition of drugs is inextricably linked to prostitution. Prohibition dramatically inflates drug prices (by several 1000%), meaning that many low income drug users turn to acquisitive property crime, low level fraud or prostitution in order to fund their habits. Most street sex workers turn to prostitution in order to raise money to buy drugs (the Home Office estimates 75-95%). Street prostitution is rarely a career choice.
Brian Tobin, director of Iceni, the small drugs charity that has spearheaded the project dealing with all the sex workers in Ipswich, describes the set of circumstances in the town as "pretty unique". He acknowledges that the killings themselves - one sixth of the town's prostitutes were murdered - were critical in persuading the women and the relevant agencies to work together.
However he goes on to say that, “Our hardest part is yet to come. Now we have got to sustain this. We are now getting to the root of the problem, which was hidden by drugs.”
He argues that such programmes could be replicated elsewhere but they need a great deal of resources and effort in order to succeed. Further criminalisation of these women – such as was called for in the CJB - is not going to help them get off the streets and improve their lives.
The Ipswich murders and the drugs debate (Transform blog at the time of the Ipswich murders)