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ACPO exec wants 'ugly mugs' database to protect sex workers

All part of 'rational debate' on prostitution

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Society needs to be having a radical debate about the laws on prostitution – and the answer, according to Deputy Chief Constable Simon Byrne, ACPO's lead on prostitution and sexual exploitation, involves funding a national database of "ugly mugs".

That is, a database of dodgy punters – or men suspected of attacking sex workers.

Such a scheme has been pioneered in Liverpool since October 2006 when the Home Office awarded a grant to the Armistead Street outreach centre to employ an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA). One activity undertaken by the ISVA has been co-ordination of the Armistead Street "Ugly Mugs" scheme, which enables sex workers to report crimes committed against them to the project.

The project can then alert other sex workers to potential attackers, whilst the scheme is also seen as a way to encourage sex workers to report crimes to the police.

Ugly Mugs schemes are also run in a number of other cities across the UK, but unlike the Liverpool scheme, they are not supported by government funds, and they are separate schemes: information is not shared between the different projects.

Whether the government – which has made much of cancelling a number of similar big database projects connected to crime and policing – has any appetite for this suggestion remains to be seen.

DCC Byrne delivered his views off the cuff in an interview with the BBC in respect of another matter - the murder of three sex workers in Bradford earlier this month – before jetting off to Switzerland for his winter break.

That left the ACPO press office ever so slightly up in the air as to whether this was a new initiative – or merely support for an existing one. However a spokeswoman did suggest that she believed that there was to be a wider-ranging consultation on issues around prostitution by the Home Office in the New Year.

The Home Office were even less sure. A spokesman there pointed out that although they had provided support for the Liverpool scheme, this was an area in which ACPO had the lead. They then added that: "The Government is committed to tackling the harm and exploitation associated with prostitution" and that "we want to see the police use the law, where appropriate". So no surprises there!

Critics of the government approach to sex work, were less supportive. They point to what they see as inconsistency on this issue, with the last government, in the person of the then Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman, vociferously committed to closing down punternet – an online resource that is used by sex workers and clients to discuss issues arising from sex work and to alert individuals to known ugly mugs.

The main difference between this approach and that proposed by ACPO is that punternet is in effect compiled and run by sex workers and their clients: a central ugly mug scheme would be compiled and run by the police.

Government may have changed – but the approach to sex work, based in many areas on a "zero tolerance" approach has not. The issue then becomes one of trust: if government and police, through legislation such as the Proceeds of Crime Act, which gives the police a financial stake in criminalising sex work, take a punitive approach to sex work, it is less likely that sex workers will co-operate with police in bringing ugly mugs to book.

It may be that that is the debate that DCC Byrne had in mind – but we will have to wait until he returns to find out. ®

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