Hilary's Article for South Leeds Life - February 2016

[First published on South Leeds Life, 07 February 2016 http://www.southleedslife.com/managed-area-is-not-working/]

There's been a lot of debate in Holbeck recently about the ‘managed area’ for prostitution.

The story goes as follows. There's long been prostitution in the area and it has caused nuisance and distress to local residents. The police have tried their normal approach although according to research by York University it has “made very little difference to local residents and to the numbers of complaints” and there are groups, like the Joanna project and the Basis Sex Work Project, that support the sex workers and, in some cases, help them to leave behind prostitution as a way of life.

In the light of all this, the Council and the police decided to try something different. They announced a trial in which the women could work in a specified area away from people's homes - the ‘managed area’ - but only between the hours of 7pm and 7am to try to limit the problems to local residents and businesses.

The police and the Council say that this trial scheme has resulted in greater safety for the women concerned as it has enabled police officers to build up trust with the sex workers, which has had positive results, including two convictions of men for violent sex offences last year. They also say that there have been fewer complaints from members of the public. However, businesses in the managed area have complained strongly to me that they have to step over used condoms and other public health hazards on their way to work in the morning, and both businesses and residents say that some of the women are not adhering either to the boundaries of the area or the 'working hours'. There have also been complaints of men in cars trying to solicit sex from women who are walking home or to and from work both inside and outside the area and, of course, there was the recent tragic murder of a sex worker in Holbeck.

The current flurry of publicity has been the result of the Council deciding to make the trial scheme permanent, which has come as a surprise to people locally. I've made representations about this lack of consultation and there will shortly be a meeting with local businesses to discuss the scheme.

My view on all this is as follows. Not for nothing is prostitution described as the oldest profession in the world and it has always been present in the city, including in Holbeck. Because of this and the evidence that a change of approach might be helpful, it was thought worth trying out the idea of a managed area. The safety of women must be taken seriously and for too long often quite vulnerable women have been the unseen and unheard victims of sexual crimes. But the area can only work if both the hours and the boundaries are properly enforced and judging by the complaints I have been receiving from local residents and businesses alike, this is simply not happening well enough at the moment. That needs to change if the community is to have confidence in the scheme. In addition, proper arrangements need to be put into place by the Council to clean up every morning so that people working in local businesses don't have to confront the results of the previous night's activities.

It’s an issue that divides opinion and provokes strong reactions, but it’s also a social problem in which we need to balance the concerns of residents and businesses with the safety of the women working on the street. What do you think?

To change tack completely, in recent weeks there have been two lobbies in Parliament about the scrapping of grants for students from low income backgrounds and student nurses and midwives and replacing them with loans. The fear is that this will force students from low-income backgrounds to take out additional loans which they will eventually need to repay.

I am opposed to both changes because we need to do all we can to encourage young people from South Leeds who want to go to university to be able to do so. Although the proportion of young people going into higher education from the Leeds Central constituency has risen quite a bit in the last 20 years, the difference nationally in participation rates between young people living in the most advantaged and most disadvantaged communities remains far too high. We need to change that and turning grants into loans is not going to help.

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

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