West Yorkshire Police say they have adopted the Association of Chief Police Officers 2011 Guidance for Policing Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation and to have acted on recommendations in the Home Office’s 2011 Review of Effective Practice in Responding to Prostitution, but is this true? An interview and a number of FOI requests show the force is not following the guidance in at least two key areas. There are also issues with data recording and concerns around what messages the police are giving to local communities about ‘solving’ the issue of prostitution. But there is also evidence of best practice engagement with initiatives such as National Ugly Mugs.
West Yorkshire Police’s policy team told me that they see the ACPO guidance as best practice. The West Yorkshire Police Adult Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation policy states it is compliant with both the ACPO guidance and the Home Office review. However, as for treating crimes against people in prostitution as hate crimes – something which the ACPO guidance recommends forces to do (section 4.3.2.) – West Yorkshire Police do not appear to have ever considered this, and they certainly have no plans to consider this in future. The representative I interviewed thought the fact that only one force had adopted the hate crime approach was a supporting reason for not considering this in future. Merseyside Police have taken this approach since 2006 (hence the approach now being commonly referred to as the “Merseyside Model”) and have drastically increased conviction rates for all crimes against sex workers as a result.
The role of the Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) was commissioned by Baroness Stern through the Home Office Violent Crime Unit in 2005. ISVAs are seen by campaigners such as Ruth Jacobs and Rosie Campbell OBE as essential resources for “encouraging reporting and supporting sex workers from report to court”. They have “a key role in liaising with the police and sex workers to help sex workers get justice.” West Yorkshire Police told me that each district in West Yorkshire can commission ISVAs, but I was not given any specific data about how many there were now, or plans to commission them in future – it was suggested each district probably has one ISVA currently, but these would not be specific to sex workers. The Survivor’s Trust website lists 6 ISVAs in West Yorkshire. The Bradford Rape Crisis & Sexual Abuse Survivors Service has called for the provision of more independent sexual violence advisors to directly help women who report their rape to the police. Women working as prostitutes may have access issues to these services unless the services are resourced to go to them. The Home Office’s 2011 “Review of Effective Practice in Responding to Prostitution”, which was instigated as a result of the 2009 murders of Susan Rushworth, Shelley Armitage and Suzanne Blamires in Bradford, puts forward the availability of ISVAs as one of its key messages and lessons for police forces to take on board. The review presents a case study (page 16) of Merseyside Police’s success as a result of utilising ISVAs:
In the first 18 months of having a specialist ISVA service for sex workers, there was a 400% increase in the proportion of people giving consent to share full details with the police.
An ISVA costs approximately £40,000 per year, whereas the cost of investigating a rape is estimated to be £76,000. Furthermore, as highlighted by a number of convictions, some offenders have committed earlier offences, and therefore savings can be attributed to each conviction on the basis of preventing further offences.
The West Yorkshire Police policy team seemed to be quite cut off from the implementation work going on in the districts. I pressed the question of how the central team knew if the policy was being delivered, but there seemed to be no mechanism for understanding performance in the districts and gaining insight from the frontline to be fed back to the central team who manage the policy. This only appears to happen on an annual basis in preparation for updating the Adult Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation policy, the next of which is due in July this year. I asked West Yorkshire Police via a FOI request to provide any review or assessment documents of their policy, but none were forthcoming so I assume they do not exist.
There are estimated to be at least 250 women working as prostitutes on the streets of Leeds, mostly in the Holbeck area of South Leeds. Many people see the prostitutes themselves as the problem, and do not seem to appreciate the factors which have led them to that situation, or to think beyond policing as the solution. As the police are the people most often called on to discuss the topic with local residents it is essential that they are prepared to challenge residents and get the messages in the ACPO guidance and Home Office review across. There is some evidence this is happening, such as at a recent meeting Hilary Benn held with Holbeck residents where street prostitution was put forward as one of the top issues by local residents. Inspector Chris Bowen acknowledged who the victims were and talked of working with support groups to form a long-term solution, but immediate resources are going to tackle punters, not support the “women who are victims of the situation”. There is however hope of positive change in Holbeck if support group Joanna get the go-ahead to set up a drop-in centre as debated in this South Leeds Life post. It may be constructive for West Yorkshire Police and Joanna to meet residents together in future to demonstrate how they are both part of the ‘solution’.
The Home Office funded National Ugly Mugs scheme was set up to allow sex workers to share information with each other about violent punters. This is needed because sex workers are often reluctant to make formal complaints to the police because they are usually not treated with respect as a victim of crime. National Ugly Mugs and similar local schemes are advocated by both the ACPO guidance and the Home Office review. The review states (page 16), “Local ‘Ugly Mugs’ or ’Dodgy Punter’ schemes can help improve safety by allowing people involved in prostitution to report incidents of violence, which can then enable information about dangerous individuals to be disseminated to others or be used to report a crime to the police for investigation.” West Yorkshire Police told me that they engage extensively with the scheme. They regularly meet with agencies supporting sex workers to gather information; they record incidents on their intelligence systems, and supply photos of dangerous individuals for the scheme database.
West Yorkshire Police officers attend regular meetings with volunteer outreach agencies to discuss how to steer people away from prostitution and help them with issues such as drug use, particularly in Leeds and Bradford where prostitution is most prevalent. These agencies include Genesis, Sweet Project, Bradford Working Women, Blast and Star.
I followed up the interview by submitting FOI requests to West Yorkshire Police and Merseyside Police asking for conviction rates for rape and sexual assault against sex workers and for the conviction rates for all crimes against sex workers over the last five years. My intention was to benchmark West Yorkshire Police against Merseyside Police who have been held up as an exemplar in this area of policing. I was surprised when Merseyside Police refused my request on the following grounds: “Although there is a field to record the occupation of a victim on crime records, “sex worker” or “prostitute” is not a legitimate occupation which would be entered in this field. There is therefore no automatic way to search for all crime victims who are sex workers, and, retrieval would require manual review of individual cases. As there are over 1700 cases of rape recorded in the last 3 years, it would clearly not be possible to review this number of cases within 18 hours. Additionally, it is not possible to automatically search for crimes which resulted in a conviction, as such information is owned by HM Courts Service. Each case where an offender was charged or summonsed would have to be manually checked to see what the final outcome was in court. This, again, is an exercise that would take a considerable amount of time.”
I asked Merseyside Police how a Liverpool Echo article from 2009 could state that “Merseyside Police convict 90% of those who rape sex workers in Liverpool” and “detection rates for rapes against prostitutes are also up by nearly 35% from 5.6% in 2006/07 to 40% in the past year” if no data was available. Merseyside Police have not replied to that question, nor confirmed that the Liverpool Echo article is correct. A 2010 Guardian article about the ‘Merseyside Model’ states, “…now the overall conviction rate (on Merseyside) for crimes against sex workers is 84%, with a 67% conviction rate for rape. The national average conviction rate for rape is just 6.5%.” This supports the conclusion that the Liverpool Echo article is wrong – perhaps a botched job of editing a Merseyside Police press notice. An obvious question from the Guardian data is “why isn’t the Merseyside Model rolled out to everyone?” I asked West Yorkshire Police that question 9 months ago but have not had a proper reply yet…
West Yorkshire Police responded to the FOI request with data for recorded crimes over the last five years “which were not subsequently no-crimed and related to crimes against a prostitute where the key word ‘prostitute’ was detailed in the MO victim features” of between 6 and 8 rapes, 0 and 4 sexual assaults, and 8 and 17 ‘other’ crime types per year. The actual convictions against these crimes per year generally ranged from 0% to 20%. The FOI response is here. West Yorkshire Police also included the following information in their FOI response:
Street level intervention is key to both signposting sex workers towards relevant partner agencies but also to identify and deal with those that seek to offend in this area. In terms of the most serious of sexual offences (Rape) West Yorkshire Police has a dedicated unit of both Police Officers and Police Staff under Operation Topaz that investigates these crimes. Officers within this unit have experience of dealing with those that engage in prostitution and are live to the barriers that may exist to co-operating with the Police in investigating and ultimately prosecuting such matters. Operation Topaz staff are also experienced in both referring to and dealing with relevant partner agencies that can offer support to those effected by offending of this nature.
Prostitution occurs in a number of settings and contexts, for example street working, brothels and by advertisement on the internet. West Yorkshire Police have a fundamental responsibility to protect individuals and communities from the harm caused by prostitution by investigating and disrupting organised criminal activity and supporting and creating effective partnerships with other statutory and voluntary agencies to minimise or eliminate that harm.
There are several factors which may draw people into prostitution: financial pressures, drug and alcohol issues or, in some cases, early sexual exploitation. Our first response therefore is to attempt effective early intervention to assist those engaged in prostitution to exit that lifestyle by referring them into a range of statutory and third sector service providers and divert them from criminal prosecution which of itself is often only a short term remedy. This entails multi agency case conferencing of those who continue to work as prostitutes to ensure that all diversionary options are identified before resorting to prosecution. Additionally, we also seek to address this problem by targeting those who seek the services of prostitutes, particularly in on street settings.
Some conclusions & further questions
- Because West Yorkshire Police dismiss the Merseyside Model and do not appear to see the importance of Independent Sexual Violence Advisors they cannot claim to be fully aligned to the ACPO guidance and the Home Office review. Perhaps West Yorkshire Police see the officers deployed under Operation Topaz as a substitute for ISVAs, but there is no evidence that they are having the effect that ISVAs are in Merseyside. As ISVAs are a cost saving measure as a well as a service improvement measure it is unclear why they have not been commissioned to mitigate West Yorkshire Police’s financial challenges.
- West Yorkshire Police’s Adult Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation policy stipulates local, regional, national and international monitoring and data sharing, but it is not clear what is being captured or shared as West Yorkshire Police were unable to provide adequate answers to fairly basic questions. Merseyside Police appear to have similar problems.
- Getting the perspectives of support groups and prostitutes themselves would be essential to building the complete picture here. Do support groups think prostitutes are treated well by West Yorkshire Police – do the Police have high professional standards in this respect, or is there evidence of prostitutes being treated primarily as criminals when they are reporting crimes they have been the victim of? Are prostitutes supported and encouraged to report crimes against them and follow the process through to a successful conviction?
- As local residents tend to see prostitution as solely a policing issue, it is important that West Yorkshire Police act as advocates for the strategy put forward by the ACPO and the Home Office. They need to challenge local views if necessary. There is the need for a consistent narrative from the police which moves away from a simple story of ‘crime and punishment’.