LittleLaw looks at… Prostitution in the UK

Is the sun going down on Leeds' "Managed Approach" to prostitution?

September 7, 2019

6 min read

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What's going on here?

Since 2014, Holbeck (an industrial suburb of Leeds) has permitted sex workers to operate without fear of prosecution. Within a certain area and at prescribed times, offences related to prostitution in UK law are tolerated under the city’s “managed approach”. As the scheme approaches its fifth anniversary, local opposition has reached a fever pitch and a £50,000 independent review has been commissioned.1

What's meant by the "Managed Approach"?

While prostitution is not an offence in UK law, a number of associated activities are. Soliciting (which covers both offering services as a prostitute and attempting to purchase sex), kerb-crawling (soliciting from a motor vehicle in a public place) and pimping (controlling the activities of a prostitute for gain) are all illegal.2

Within a designated area in Holbeck, no cautions or arrests are made for these acts between 8pm and 6am (save for pimping, which remains triable). Any offences committed outside the area or after the curfew trigger a three-strikes policy which comprises a warning, followed by a caution and then arrest. The radical approach employs a partnership model with the police, Leeds Council and various NGOs working in tandem to control sex work.

The scheme follows a string of failed initiatives that focused on sanctions and enforcement. These included issuing ASBOs, a scheme that revoked kerb-crawlers’ driving licences and another that “named and shamed” sex buyers in the media.3 The current approach carries similar aims to these initiatives: reducing the prevalence of sex work and mitigating the second-order problems it creates. Crucially, the scheme differs from its antecedents in seeking to better engage with sex workers to improve their safety and enable their exit from such work.

Why is the scheme attracting controversy?

Such is the range of arguments on either side of the debate regarding Holbeck that there is no unifying theme. Local, political, practical, moral and economic reasons (to name a handful) are offered by opponents and proponents alike.

The most vocal opponent of Holbeck’s managed approach is local interest group Save Our Eyes. They allege that the safety of Holbeck’s residents is jeopardised by the scheme which has led to “daily harassment” and “danger from discarded condoms, needles and sex industry litter”.4 They report anecdotes of altercations between residents and prostitutes and their clients, which speaks to the social and communal price that Holbeck has paid for pioneering this approach – whereby the tolerance of sex work has seemingly attracted other antisocial behaviours. Their case is made stronger by reports by local businesses of reduced footfall and revenue.5

Beyond the local level, it is argued by some that the managed approach creates an open market for sex buyers without necessarily challenging such transactions.6 Taken further, the scheme could be seen to condone or promote prostitution. Prostitution and abuse are often two sides of the same coin; therefore, there exists a strong moral obligation for local and national governments to reduce such harm. There is no clearer reminder of this obligation than the tragic case of Daria Pionko, who operated as a sex worker in Holbeck until she was brutally murdered in 2015.7

Is there evidence of success?

Proponents of the managed approach view Holbeck’s project very differently. They contend that the collaborative and conciliatory approach of the police, local government and various NGOs has contributed to an increased likelihood of crimes being reported (evidenced in a survey of self-reporting sex workers in the area)8. If this holds true, it will be in part due to an amelioration of the relationship between the police and sex workers. It is thought that if sex workers can operate without fear of a criminal record and the associated stigma, they may also more easily find alternate means of earning an income.9

Ultimately, supporters of the scheme can make an appeal to pragmatism. Numerous police initiatives have tried and failed to end sex work in Leeds since 1998.10 If the managed approach were to be cast aside, a robust replacement would be needed to stop such work going underground and therefore making further demands on police resources.

What can Holbeck teach us about wider policy design in the UK?

Holbeck’s managed approach offers a myriad of insights for legislators to consider. For starters, it represents a fascinating case in point on passive policing in the UK. In Holbeck, the council and the police agreed which offences were to be tolerated. However, should this approach be applied elsewhere the debate arises as to who ought to have the final say about tolerable offences. Assuming the purpose of the criminal law is at least in part an exercise in protecting communities from harm, it follows that it may be individual communities who ought to decide on leniency. This would likely not sit comfortably with the Crown Prosecution Service’s national approach to distributing justice. Looking overseas and away from sex work, there are parallels to be drawn between Holbeck’s managed approach and Portugal’s 2001 “decriminalisation”11 of consumption offences for all drugs. In the intervening years the drug-induced death rate in Portugal has plummeted, suggesting that “light-touch” criminal justice can lead to positive outcomes. In Portugal, drug-related offences are now largely related to supply. Applied to prostitution, the Portuguese model might inspire efforts to criminalise the act of buying sex as opposed to selling it (it is worth remembering that prostitution itself is not illegal in the UK but touting it is). However, fresh momentum would be required to enact such legislation since a so-called “sex buyer law” was rejected by the Home Affairs Committee as recently as 2016.12

LittleLaw’s verdict: Not time to turn the red light off on Holbeck

It seems that harm, in one form or another, is an inevitability whether the managed approach continues or is scrapped, which obfuscates a value judgement on Holbeck. As we have seen, the scheme seems to attract criminogenic behaviours and carries heavy social and economic costs. That said, if it were a choice between continuing the managed approach and an outright end to the scheme, LittleLaw supports the former.

The potential human cost of ending the managed approach is too grave, with vulnerable women likely to once again fall foul of the law and re-enter cycles of misfortune. However, the scheme needs fresh impetus and reform in order to combat the societal ills it facilitates. A short-term emphasis on policing anti-social behaviours (aside from the excepted sex work offences) and street cleaning is necessary. In the long term, the scheme needs to be informed by a firm commitment to ending street prostitution, which has no place in modern Britain; tackling sex work will involve challenging the conduct of buyers at every turn.

LittleLaw will cover any further developments and the final publication of the review when it is made publicly available (expected March 2020).

Report written by Samuel Denison

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  1. The review is to be conducted by academics in the Applied Criminology and Policing Centre at the University of Huddersfield and will look at all aspects of the sex zone. Kristian Johnson, ‘£50,000 independent review of Leeds sex zone begins today’ (LeedsLive, 1 July 2019).
  2. Soliciting: Street Offences at 1959, s1. Kerb-crawling: Sexual Offences Act 1985, s1. Pimping: Sexual Offences Act 2003, s53.
  3. Dr Kate Lister, ‘The Leeds ‘managed zone’ can work – removing it will only displace vulnerable women’ (iNews, 3 August 2018).
  4. “About Our Campaign” (Save Our Eyes, 2018).
  5. Charles Hymas, ‘‘A disaster from day one’: Is this the end of Britain’s first ‘legal’ red light district?’ (Telegraph, 24 July 2018).
  6. Julie Bindel, ‘I worry they are trafficked’: is the UK’s first ‘legal’ red light zone working? (The Guardian, 29 June 2019).
  7. Anon, ‘Daria Pionko death: Sex worker suffered ‘forceful attack’’ (BBC, 28 June 2016); Anon, ‘Daria Pionko death: Lewis Pierre jailed for murder’ (BBC, 5 July 2016).
  8. Anon, ‘Meeting over Leeds managed prostitution zone’ (BBC, 23 February 2019); Anon, ‘Possible Closure of Leeds ‘Managed Zone’’ (Swarm Collective, 12 November 2018).
  9. Anon, ‘Sex in the City: ‘My aim is to make life on Leeds streets safer’ (Yorkshire Evening Post, 24 August 2017); Kristian Johnson, ‘Sex worker charity says Holbeck sex zone is ‘far better than it was’ – but improvements can still be made’ (LeedsLive, 4 December 2018).
  10. See (n 3).
  11. Offences changed from criminal to administrative provided the supply was less than 10 days’ worth. Naina Bajekal, ‘Want to Win the War on Drugs? Portugal Might Have the Answer’ (TIME, 1 August 2018).

  12. House of Commons, Home Affairs Committee: Prostitution (page 22) (1 July 2016).