National activist group unhappy with Redbridge Council's Ilford Lane prostitution crackdown
PUBLISHED: 07:00 22 January 2020 | UPDATED: 10:54 22 January 2020
Redbridge Council's efforts to reduce prostitution are a "complete disgrace" that will endanger vulnerable women, an activist group has warned.
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECOP) has claimed that a £20,000 trial to change the mindset and behaviour of those soliciting sex will only force sex workers into more dangerous situations.
The trial, announced earlier this month, was funded by a grant from the Local Government Association and will focus on south Ilford, a prostitution hotspot.
The council has also increased its council enforcement presence, CCTV and police patrols in the area, as well as banning attempts to buy sexual services in public.
ECOP spokeswoman Laura Watson said: "Criminalising clients does not stop prostitution or stop the criminalisation of workers. It does make it more dangerous for sex workers, which is our concern.
"The need for clients does not go away but clients become nervous to stop, which means women don't have the time to negotiate, check them out, see if there's anyone else in the car or let a friend write the licence plate down.
"You just have to jump in the car rather than take time and that's a very dangerous situation the council are putting women in.
"We have many times now experienced women who have faced increased violence in the wake of a police crackdown.
"We are warning the council that this is a possibility if they go forward with this policy and we will continue to campaign against this approach.
"Stop the crackdown straight away, make sure women can come forward to police and report violence and coercion without fear of arrest."
Redbridge Council hopes to convince those soliciting sex that sex workers are often victims of trafficking and coercion and encourage the wider community to resent those driving the demand rather than those engaged in sex work.
Responding to ECOP's objections, council leader Jas Athwal insisted that "comprehensive work" carried out by the council in south Ilford showed that sex workers around Ilford Lane "are almost exclusively Romanian migrants", many of whom have been trafficked and coerced.
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He said: "The overriding objective of our enforcement work has always been to tackle the men who we know are illegally soliciting sex.
"Rather than being arrested, women are engaged and signposted to support services to try and help them find other sources of income, and help them come to terms with any trauma they may have experienced.
"We have also been working with the Home Office to tackle the issue of human trafficking within suspected brothels.
"Local people appealed to us for help after daily confrontations with men soliciting sex, in their front gardens, high street and alley ways. We have stepped up to support the women involved, while protecting local families and targeting men illegally soliciting sex."
ECOP, however, insist most sex workers are not trafficked and that the council could more effectively reduce prostitution by tackling women's poverty.
Ms Watson said: "Evidence shows most sex workers are not victims of trafficking; migrant workers make up about six per cent of the total.
"This is purely a PR effort to justify it to local people, who are obviously concerned about trafficking and coercion. Why do they not just enforce anti-trafficking legislation?
"We have a massive crisis in women's poverty at the moment because other jobs are not available or paying enough and people are being cut off benefits for weeks, months or years.
"What do they expect women to do to support themselves and their children? They have to look at women's poverty and stop benefits sanctions in the area.
"All this will do is displace sex workers into more isolated areas, areas they do not know as well. That's how sex workers have ended up in Redbridge anyway, displaced from other boroughs."
Speaking when the trial was announced on January 9, council leader Cllr Jas Athwal said: "We're already doing a lot of good work tackling prostitution in the borough working closely with the police and local community, and have seen a huge decline in on-street prostitution.
"However, it's equally important to focus on changing the mindset and behaviour of those engaging in this type of practice to ensure a shift in attitude that will help deter local people from purchasing sex to begin with.
"We very much welcome this grant and will put it to good use, building on the excellent work we've already delivered by putting initiatives in place that focus on changing people's behaviour."