The government was last night accused of turning the clock back 25 years by introducing a law that will allow courts to imprison prostitutes who are arrested for soliciting. The move has provoked the fury of women's support groups, who say the move will do nothing to address the root causes of the illicit trade in sex.
The landmark 1982 Criminal Justice Act removed the power of courts to jail prostitutes for soliciting, replacing the threat of custodial sentences with fines. But the new Criminal Justice and Immigration bill, which will be debated in parliament in October, gives magistrates powers to detain soliciting prostitutes in prison for up to three days on remand if they fail to attend mandatory counselling sessions and ignore court orders.
'It's a new way to lock women up for consenting to sex; it's just appalling,' said Nina Lopez, spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes. 'You can't force women into rehabilitation.'
Under the law, prostitutes caught soliciting can be ordered to attend three meetings with a court-appointed expert to discuss 'ending their involvement' with prostitution. Magistrates will be able to summon those who fail to attend the sessions before a court. Those who do not obey the summons can be arrested and imprisoned for up to 72 hours.
The new law is ostensibly designed to help prostitutes break out of a cycle of vice. Drawn up partly in response to the murders of five prostitutes in Suffolk last year, it is supposed to help rehabilitation by putting women in touch with health officials and probation officers. But given the chaotic nature of most prostitutes' lives, experts said it was likely that many will not attend meetings and end up in prison as a result.
'This is yet another example of the state's wish to exert moral disapproval of prostitution while recognising that it will not go away,' said Harry Fletcher, assistant general-secretary of the probation officers' union, Napo. 'The threat of custody is extremely punitive.'
The threat of tougher measures also appears to be at odds with the government's beliefs. The use of 'traditional' enforcement involving police crackdowns does not appear to reduce disorder, Home Office research indicates .
Some 3,500 prostitutes a year are brought to court or cautioned for soliciting offences. Allowing courts to detain prostitutes could see thousands in prison over the next decade, according to experts, who believe the new powers will prove popular with police and magistrates frustrated by the number of offenders who default on fines.
But at a time when the prison population is close to maximum capacity and prison reform groups are warning that the state is already locking up too many women, there are concerns that steps to detain prostitutes will backfire.
'No one wants more women in prison, let alone for missing meetings,' said Will Higham of the Prison Reform Trust. 'The sad thing is the bill shows a real ambition to work with the causes of prostitution, but this fails utterly to understand that vulnerable people with chaotic lives can't be asked to walk a tightrope.'
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said detaining prostitutes for the full 72 hours will be used in very few cases and referral orders are used effectively throughout the criminal justice system.