“Yet I am here, a chosen sample,
To shew thy grace is geat and ample:
I’m here, a pillar of thy temple
Strong as a rock
A guide, a ruler & example
To a’ thy flock.” – Holy Willie’s Prayer, Robert Burns.
Gordon Brown’s cabinet lurches from one half-baked initiative to another. But one still has to reckon with its loyalty to some principles: it is glued to the task of reforming the country’s marginalised and criminal classes. This neatly serves the goal of Christian redemption held by many (government) ministers. The PM appears to see himself as a modern Holy Willie guiding the British flock. Recently it’s the Home Secretary’s tethering of lost sheep that has grabbed everyone’s attention. Off-the-cuff measures to combat knife-crime flow and flow, there is even an absurdly named ‘Tsar’ on the case. Authoritarian policies, from extending detention without charge, to a vast increase in police power and surveillance, tussle nearby. One such move attempted to force compulsory rehabilitation on prostitutes, starting with making women arrested for soliciting attend three meetings with a supervisor. Early this year this was defaeted in the Lords. But it looks increasingly likely that the government, backed by an alliance of religious fundamentalists and some (by no means whatsoever all) feminists, will try for other plans. This would follow Swedish law criminalising the buying of sex. Added to which would be, again, obligatory re-education.
A crack-down on street sex workers in Ipswich followed Steve Wright’s murder of 5 prostitutes in 2006. A Street Prostitution Strategy Group was formed. This has made claims that the problem in the so-called Red Light District had been solved, that women were being weaned off the drugs that drive them into this activity, and brought back into society. The recalcitrant have been issued with ASBOs against walking in designated areas. This model is being promoted nationally. It is becoming clear that Brown’s colleagues intend to extend it, tied to prohibiting the purchase of sex.
There are strong reasons to have concerns about this approach. A public meeting in Ipswich on Monday 13th July organised the Safety First Coalition and the English Collective of Prostitutes, was supported locally by Ipswich Trades Council, local residents, some sex workers and a few church people. Its call was for the decriminalisation of prostitution. This would follow the (five years old) move to carry this out in New Zealand. “Police” the Collective observes, “have moved on from clogging the courts with prosecutions for soliciting to preventing violence against sex workers.” Teresa Mackay of UNITE noted that Ipswich Trades Council had successfully presented a motion supporting this in principle at its national conference, and many unions had adopted the same position. The Rev Andrew Dotchin made a plea on behalf of those who were being failed by the Teams meant to deal with them. One local sex worker confirmed this. She told of her plight: how she had been unable to get access to decent housing until helped by a concerned journalist. That there were, contarary to the Strategy Group’s claims, still women out on the street (one could add that there are plenty of cards in certain newsagents as well as tolerated – for now – ‘massage parlours’ ) .
Niki Adams of the Collective made one of the most persuasive speeches that I have ever heard. She argued that there should be no question of either ‘supporting’ or ‘condemning’ prostitution. Criminalising consenting sex simply drives it underground and forces women into isolation. The priority was safety and preventing violence against women. As for alternatives, these should be voluntary. Niki stated that the government refused to listen to evidence of the success of the New Zealand approach, and would adopt the Swedish template unless vigorously opposed. She then brought in wider aspects of the state’s moralism and its approach to crime, deviant behaviour and reforming the feckless poor. A two-tier legal system is being built: one to deal with serious crime (and which is straining to cope with, notably, aggression and rape), and the other – massively expanding – od ‘para-justice’. The latter fines and prosecutes people (prediminantly the badly-off) with low standards of evidence.
Increased interference in people’s behaviour is, others continued, not just aimed at prostitution. It is a central part of New Labour’s strategy. Polly Toynbee (Guardian July 15th) talks of a “ladder of interventions”, to cut violent, particularly, knife-related, crime: “For a long time it’s been clear a relatively small number of families - Brown said 110,000 – cause most crime and violence, sometimes for generations.” 20,000 of these should have intensive parenting support (attendance not optional), or, it is mooted, they will face eviction from council housing (a favourite cabinet threat). As ever, the undeserving working class and poor are the objects of social policy.
The prospect is dire. As if one could single out the bad people in society (all 120,000 of them) and abolish such scourges of the ages as prostitution, thieving and violence by rehabilitating them! It’s obvious that decent work is not easily available for most of them. Nor is relying on the JSA allowance for the (over age 25) unemployed of £60.50 going to tempt those presently involved in illegal money-making schemes,violent crime or selling sex, to return to the straight and narrow. Nor will lectures from hectoring social workers do much good. Or other quick-fix remedies. On this, questions may be asked about Ipswich’s principle drug rehabilitation programme (which has accepted state strategy) and its use of acupuncture. Still, with the increasing privatisation of welfare, one expects for-profit and religious bodies to jump at the cash that will come with these plans. No doubt some would like to follow the fictional Robert Elsmere (1888 ) by Mary Ward, and set up a New Brotherhood of Christianity to redeem the sinning poor. Others look to the latest American fad and wish to ‘nudge’ the deviant into good behaviour – though the ‘nudge’ quickly becomes a shove.
The Safety First meeting illustrated the obstacles facing those who stand for people’s rights. The message is that we should turn our backs on the moralisers and campaign for real measures to improve the lot of those engaged in prostitution: we must begin with decriminalisation, and then offer viable choices to those who want to get out. A hard objective, but the only realistic one compatible with democratic values.
See also: this.