BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.11.02

Film: Film on Prostitution: Iain Watson reports on proposals in Scotland to create tolerance zones where prostitutes would be free to ply their trade.

IAIN WATSON: Scotland's capital by night; as the sun sets on Edinburgh, there are some sights in this city you won't see highlighted in the latest short break brochures. Around the dockland area of Leith, the dark pages of an Ian Rankin or an Irvine Welsh novel are made flesh. Even though this is Sunday, you're not going to be treated to an uplifting tale of fallen women made good. A happy ending isn't guaranteed. Prostitution isn't illegal; but soliciting for business is. So you would imagine that politicians would be calling for a crackdown on the women who work these streets. But in fact, there is a bill before the Scottish Parliament which would allow police to turn a blind eye to those who are touting for business in designated areas, just so long as local councils agree. Edinburgh police once operated an unofficial 'toleration zone' in this area. They wouldn't arrest women who were simply looking for business. But after complaints from new residents, the zone was abandoned a year ago The women who worked there say this has put them not only at a greater risk of prosecution; but at a greater risk of attack. TRACY: The girls are like looking out, looking behind their backs thinking, oh, would it be safe to stand here, are the police going to come and get me and things that like. WATSON: What kinds of risks are you facing now? TRACY: Being out there wondering if any girls are, if when they go in that car are they going to come back in the same car they went away in. Everybody should be there for everybody, but because there's no zone, there's nothing. You think to yourself, oh, will this be my last night and things like that. WATSON: Leading the charge to make toleration zones legal is the veteran SNP politician Margo MacDonald. She say her Bill won't impose them on places that don't want them. But she believes the experience in Leith proves they can work; if they're confined to non-residential areas MARGO MACDONALD MSP: The idea of tolerating street soliciting inside a strictly defined area centred around this area, because it used to be old warehouses and it was frankly run down and not all that many people around but in common with lots of places, you know near waterfronts and cities and so on, it's been upgraded, it's very nice, very pleasant indeed. Lovely new houses and you can't really blame the people for saying, well we've got this house at some considerable cost and we don't want it to be thought of as being in the middle of a red light district. WATSON: She says the zone here benefited not just prostitutes, but the law-abiding public too. MARGO MACDONALD MSP: Firstly there was a lower rate of criminality associated with street prostitution because of the intelligence that the police had built up in the area, no pimps and things like that. Also there were no under aged girls working as prostitutes, and there now are because there's no tolerance zone, the police don't exactly know where ,you know, the women are going to be. And thirdly, the huge benefit to public health, of the woman being in touch with the health services, the fact that the HIV infection which should have been rampant amongst street prostitutes in Edinburgh was actually at a lower rate of infection than it is amongst the general public WATSON: Now even those people who support toleration zones admit that the difficulty of putting their idea into practice will centre on the age old problem of location, location, location. Margo MacDonald does have some ideas about where new toleration zones could be sited in Edinburgh, but she won't let on for fear of sparking a residents revolt. So we took a bit of a look around ourselves and who knows, we may even have found the ideal place. Over here is a large hill - not many residents there and on the other side there's an office block, when office workers go home in the evening, they are hardly likely to hang around and be offended by the sight of streetwalkers and there's a construction site behind me. Unfortunately, it's going to be the home of the new Scottish Parliament and politicians certainly don't want to see a toleration zone in their backyard. Unsurprisingly, neither do the residents of Leith. ROB KIRKWOOD: Well, this is one of the many public places that the girls bring their customers. If you walk around here, around about around 11/12 o'clock at night. WATSON: Inside the play park? KIRKWOOD: Yeah. You are likely to come across one of the girls at work with one of the kerb crawlers, so it's not something that the residents obviously feel very happy about. WATSON: Rob Kirkwood is the spokesman for the Leith links residents association. He says since the toleration zone was ended in his part of Edinburgh, prostitutes have been straying into residential areas, leaving behind unwelcome souvenirs - used condoms and syringes. But he's sceptical that a new toleration zone would end this night time invasion. KIRKWOOD: You can for example get a zone which could be described as industrial and non residential and the girls may very well stand there looking for customers. The problem is where will they take their customers. I suspect that many of them will branch out into the back streets of the residential areas. So if a zone is going to be set up that problem needs to be looked at. WATSON: But location isn't the only issue. While some of Scotland's top police officers are in favour of toleration zones, the police federation - the body which represents the rank and file - oppose them in principle. CHIEF INSPECTOR COLIN DUNN: How do you ring fence an area and say well the normal public are not allowed in to this area, but the public who are wanting to pay for sex and the public who are wanting to provide that, that is turned over to them, that cannot be right in a society that claims to care for its public. We haven't it done with assault and robbery and we haven't done it with murder. It remains on the statute book, we don't set aside areas where people can commit an offence that's on the national statute book or is an offence against national law. MARGO MACDONALD MSP: It will not be illegal to solicit inside a designated area and so therefore there's no question of turning a blind eye. You would be applying the law. The law would be outside the tolerance zone, soliciting is illegal, inside legal. WATSON: In Scotland's largest city a different approach to street prostitution is being taken. By night, Glasgow operates what's known as a 'safe zone'. Unlike a toleration zone, they don't like to shout about its existence, to stop it becoming a magnet for prostitutes and punters alike. That said, ask just about anyone in the city, even a Presbyterian maiden aunt and they could give you an exact location. The police keep an eye out for any assaults here, but they reserve the right to prosecute the women for soliciting. So they're not sending out a signal that this lifestyle is acceptable. And local politicians say Margo MacDonald's got her priorities wrong. PAUL MARTIN MSP: She doesn't deal with the issue of men who demand these services first of all. I think also it's tolerating that women must live like this. Tolerating that it is acceptable for women to put themselves at risk, day in and day out, it is not acceptable and we have to support women during that period, we have to support them in terms of their re-housing prospects, their employment prospects and supporting them and their families WATSON: So Margo MacDonald's Bill may yet be sunk. But if it does make progress and delivers a safe haven for women who work the streets, then Aberdeen may provide a sneak preview of how toleration zones could operate in the future. At Aberdeen's newest leisure centre, you can enjoy a burger, take in a block buster, even play a game of bingo. But just a few yards away, down rather more dimly lit streets, less wholesome entertainment is taking place. This is Scotland's last remaining toleration zone for street prostitution. It's just gone six in the evening. As a nearby leisure park begins to do a roaring trade, these women are also hoping to attract business. Police here set up this informal toleration zone a year ago. Drugs Action is a charity which works with the women here, as almost all of the prostitutes are also heroin addicts. They believe that putting the zone on a legal footing, where the council would have to consult on its exact location, would help overcome any local truculence about its proximity to public amenities. SENGA MACDONALD: Having a tolerance zone is allowing the situation to be managed and also for the local community and residents to have some means of negotiation in the whole process, whereas without the tolerance zone, that opportunity is not there. ANNE CAMPBELL: One very strong comment that somebody said to us last night was that she didn't want to just be tolerated, she wanted to be accepted. WATSON: A local member of the Scottish Parliament doesn't support Aberdeen's informal toleration zone. Instead he wants a more radical rethink where prostitution is certainly accepted, but only behind closed doors BEN WALLACE MSP: We should look at the options of getting them off the street, into establishments where perhaps they can be better protected, where the police can keep an eye on those places and where the public can be protected from the nuisance that is often caused or disturbs some people, when their areas would be I suppose categorised a tolerant zone. WATSON: So legalised brothels? WALLACE: Well I think certainly we should go some way down that. MARGO MACDONALD MSP: Even if you tried to do that, I think some women would probably still work on the streets. They've been doing for rather a long time. WATSON: Scotland's street prostitutes are unlikely to leave the oldest profession via the route favoured by Hollywood movies. Few rich benefactors trawl these streets to 'take them away from all this'. So politicians have a choice - either to tolerate soliciting within certain zones, or to do much more to encourage women off the streets entirely. But it's unlikely that they can convince everyone that a red light simply means STOP.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.