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The simplest and most effective way to crack down on prostitutes is to take their mobile phones away - so said Denis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim) during Dáil justice questions last week.

Naughten claimed that one of the conclusions of Operation Quest - a dedicated Garda operation against brothel-keeping - was that "mobile phones are the lifeblood of this country’s brothel-keeping and prostitution industry".

This claim receives support from cases such as that of the Kildare woman, found guilty in 2007 of managing a city centre brothel with an estimated annual turnover of €4m.

The business appeared to rely on ads placed on websites or in magazines, directing prospective customers to untraceable "prepay" or "ready to go" numbers across all networks.

A search of a related premises turned up 35 mobiles, of which 32 were switched on and being answered by two women employed as "receptionists", directing customers to the brothel.

According to Detective Sergeant Holohan, who played a key role in this investigation, the prostitution industry was "extremely reliant on mobile phones". Within two days 14 numbers used by the seized phones were back up and running.

While there is no reason to doubt the police view of how the industry is currently structured, basic economics suggests that merely attacking the medium through which a message is conveyed will have little impact on the underlying business.

In the 1990s, British Telecom cracked down on the practice of distributing cards that advertised sexual services in town centre phone boxes, and blocked the phone numbers listed on the cards. Most of the cards have now disappeared – along with the phone boxes – but according to recent surveys, prostitution remains buoyant.

Naughten’s remarks need to be taken in the context of a much broader drive toward tackling prostitution across Europe. He said: "A crackdown on brothel-keeping and prostitution is taking place in other parts of Europe.

"Red-light districts in the Netherlands are being reduced by one-third because the authorities in that country have decided that their liberal policies are failing.

"New legislation that is being introduced in the UK will lead to a clampdown in that country. Unless we are prepared to tighten this country’s laws, there could be a growth in this industry here... it will be a more lax regime."

The debate focuses on the level of trafficking that goes on – with advocates on each side producing wildly different estimates of the size of the problem.

In addition, those opposed to prostitution point to the dreadful and exploited conditions of those who work as prostitutes, whether trafficked or not: those who support the further liberalisation of the trade argue that criminalisation itself is one of the main reasons why conditions are so bad, cutting women off from state support, and preventing those who are happy to earn their livelihoods "immorally" from doing so easily.

Pressure has been growing in many parts of the Western world to criminalise the act of paying for sex: a Bill before the UK Parliament – the UK Policing & Crime Bill – would, in its original form, have had the effect of criminalising men for having sex with a trafficked woman.

This wording has now been watered down in response to criticism that the strict liability nature of the offence made whether an individual broke the law or not almost wholly dependent on the veracity of another. ®

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