Why prostitutes are living in a "climate of fear"

Police crackdowns on brothel-keeping mean that sex workers are unwilling to report intimidation and

The trial of Sheila Farmer, an escort with a malignant brain tumor and diabetes charged with brothel-keeping, collapsed on 4 January after the prosecution failed to bring a witness to testify against her.

Farmer, who worked with friends for safety after she was violently raped working alone, is one of hundreds of sex workers who have been arrested since April 2010, when the revised Policing and Crime Act 2009 legislation increased police powers to raid suspected brothels and tightened the law on soliciting clients for the purposes of prostitution.

Statistics surrounding sex work prosecutions are slippery but it seems that since April 2010, the CPS has brought 967 prosecutions for soliciting and 261 prosecutions for brothel-keeping. While the Home Office statistics cannot provide a breakdown of the number of sex workers charged with the brothel-keeping offence, the anecdotal evidence from campaign groups, workers themselves, and a trawl-through local newspaper reports since April 2010 suggests that sex worker arrests in general, and prosecutions specifically for brothel-keeping, have significantly risen.

In July 2011, the Guardian reported that the number of prosecutions for sex trafficking stood at around 100 a year, resulting in a paltry 40 convictions since the PCA 2009 came into force. A law designed to prosecute those guilty of sexual exploitation and to decriminalise those who sell sex is achieving the opposite.

Being arrested for soliciting is obviously detrimental to sex workers. Once charged, not complying with rehabilitation requirements (attending meetings in which workers agree to stop soliciting) can mean prison. But the brothel-keeping offence is just as, if not more, nefarious, because it forces sex workers to operate alone or face arrest. It therefore increases their vulnerability if they do choose to work indoors, and makes street work a seemingly viable alternative, which directly contradicts the CPS's public interest statement on sex work which is "to keep prostitutes off the street".

As in Sheila Farmer's case, the individual whose name is on the tenancy agreement becomes liable for the exploitation of anyone else who sells services on those premises. Put simply, there is no such thing as legal co-working.

What's more, arresting for brothel-keeping has never been easier nor more lucrative. In recent years, police have had a vested interest in raiding brothels because of the potential assets they can seize under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Since Clause 21 of the PCA 2009 was introduced, police only need suspect, rather than prove, that a brothel employs trafficked or 'coerced' workers in order to issue a brothel closure order, before seizing whatever money or goods they find, keeping 50 per cent for the force itself. Data for the number of closure orders is not centrally collected and remains conveniently unavailable.

This is the reason that many are asking whether the police's pursuit of profit is compromising sex worker safety. In London in particular, a crackdown on prostitution prior to the Olympics is creating what the International Union of Sex Workers' Catherine Stephens describes as "a climate of fear".

She told me of how women running a brothel in a private rented property were accosted by 10-man gang: "They broke into the premises one night when two of [the women] were working. One of the girls thought some of them were armed. When they went to report the incident at the police station, the desk sergeant said, 'You do realise you're at risk of eviction if you carry on telling me what you are telling me?' He was more interested in nicking a couple of discreet sex workers for brothel-keeping than arresting a violent, armed gang."

For every story like this, there are a dozen more. Up and down the country, incidences of violence and intimidation against sex workers now go unreported to the police. Better to risk a punch in the face than a prison sentence.

The CPS guidelines on brothel-keeping stress that it is the amount of money made which should influence whether a prosecution is pursued. Neither co-working for safety, nor any notion of choice, non-coercion or freedom of employment matters when it comes to criminalising those who sell sex.

Isn't it time for the policing and criminal justice system to recognise, rather than penalise, the potential vulnerability of those in the industry, whatever the circumstances of their organisation? Let's hope that Shelia Farmer's acquittal marks the start of that duty of care.

Nichi Hodgson is a 28-year-old freelance journalist specialising in sexual politics, law and culture.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.