‘Let sex workers stay anonymous’ says Healthwatch Hackney
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The health of sex workers in Hackney is being made worse by the town hall’s backing for police enforcement tactics, a report claims.
Experts at independent watchdog Healthwatch Hackney spoke to 22 sex workers and staff at the confidential, council-backed NHS service Open Doors for its latest project.
Open Doors has been helping sex workers in the borough for almost 20 years but staff claimed “excessively complicated gatekeeping” was now having a negative impact and stopping people seeking help.
They said there had been a shift in the last two years in Hackney Council’s approach to the issue, with more dispersal and community protection orders being given out.
Staff say this is highlighted by a requirement for sex workers to share details before being referred to Open Doors by the Street User Outreach Meeting (SUOM) panel, which includes police and immigration officers.
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The town hall defended the procedure, but said it was just one of the ways sex workers could access support.
Enforcement chief Cllr Caroline Selman said: “Working together gives a structured approach and allows the partners to consider street workers who are high risk to ensure that they are receiving all the support they need in an integrated way.”
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Regular patrols are now carried out in Brownswood, Clissold and Shacklewell – where prostitution is a priority for police. Healthwatch says these target sex workers as well as kerb crawlers – though the town hall says the “vast majority” of action is against kerb crawlers.
In the year leading up to June 1, 64 dispersal notices were given to sex workers and 13 to suspected kerb crawlers.
“Open Doors has been very effective at building trust with all those involved and that trust, crucial to the project’s effectiveness, is being undermined,” said healthwatch chair Paul Fleming.
In June the Home Affairs Committee said treating soliciting as an offence was having an adverse impact. Cllr Selman said no police action was taken over sex work itself, and it was mostly kerb crawlers being put through the courts.
But she said there had been a rise in reports from neighbours about persistent anti-social behaviour from sex workers.
She explained: “In this context, enforcement is a last resort – and within a broader context of support and outreach.” She said Hackney was one of the few councils to fund a sex worker support service and would meet Healthwatch Hackney to discuss the report.